What caused the KONY 2012 video to go viral?

So I know you have been eagerly waiting to understand a bit more about what I have been doing in my Media Culture program. Well here you go! Here is one detailed analysis on what made Kony a viral sensation.

What caused the KONY 2012 video, which has been described as a ‘social media revolution,’ to go viral?

KONY 2012 showed social media supremacy at its finest. It demonstrated the true strength of social media; the power and spreadability that can be achieved when everyone is united. It was a new media phenomena which showed media consumers becoming media producers (Krieger & Belliger, 2014) and a new avenue for social activism. But the question is how did Kony 2012 go viral? Why did 50 million people watch the online sensation within four days after its release (refer to appendix 1, 2012, The Telegraph UK). How did Kony create a video that generated 438,252 comments and 1,129,564 likes by the 9th of March 2012 (refer to appendix 2, 2012, The Telegraph UK).

There are seven key areas that I have examined to understand how Invisible Children (IC) constructed a worldwide sensation and how they allowed the video to reach as many people as it did. They are all interlinked and were essential for the effectiveness of the Kony campaign.

Kony: The case

It was March 5th 2012 that Human Rights activist group IC posted the Kony 2012 video through Facebook, YouTube and Twitter urging the world to help it spread (Zuckerman, 2012). Little did they know the far-reaching impact it would have. Within a few days people had reacted to Kony with their own videos, blogs, posts and photos in response to the campaign. It showed participatory culture in full force and IC could not keep up with their reaction.

The aim of the campaign was to create awareness of Joseph Kony, who is known as a Ugandan guerilla leader, head of the Lord’s Resistance Army who is purportedly responsible for the genocide and abductions of 22,000-25,000 children (Jenkins, 2012a). UNICEF Uganda produced a report in 2006 stating that nearly two million people had gone missing due to the LRA and the report also claimed that they have been responsible for thousands of deaths in the region since the rebellion in 1986 (Jenkins, 2012a). The video’s aim was not to make Kony a celebrity but to make his name known so that pressure would be placed on influential leaders. It was hoped that they would be encouraged to take action against this tyrant and stop the inhuman behaviour being perpetrated under his command.

Henry Jenkins is a leading academic from the University of South California and a well-respected Professor of Communications, Journalism and Cinematic Arts. His credentials, and the quality of his research, lend support to the seven points laid out in my argument about IC’s role in making the Kony campaign a success. Jenkins argues that Kony 2012 did not “just go viral” (Jenkins, 2012a, Contextualizing Kony). In his popular book “Spreadable Media” (2013) he explains how our society has changed from “distributing” information to the “circulation” of content. “The public is now shaping, sharing, reframing, remixing media content in ways which might have never been previously imagined.” (2013, p.2)

The Kony 2012 video was more than just a video made overnight. It was a planned precision of perfectly orchestrated media. There were years and months of planning. As Noelle West, director of communications from IC California, states “it was the culmination of over eight year’s work, raising awareness about Kony and building relationships with key influencers” (Banning-Lover, 2014, Campaign online). However, this viral video did not just happen by accident.

1. Experts in creating media and social activism

IC has been around for eight years and had created ten movies before Kony 2012, which were not as widely circulated as the latter but sparked similar reactions from their viewers (Ligler-Vilenchik via Jenkins, 2012b). It is from these videos that viewers joined the ‘Invisible Children’s Movement’ which built up a team of interns, roadies and local club members in high schools and colleges. They have held many events for social movements such as in 2011 when six hundred and fifty American youths came together to feel empowered and rally for causes they cared fervently about. It is evident that IC were not just any non-for-profit organisation but a skilled team who understood how to create appealing media with the knowledge of how activism works. Years of trial and error with their videos had resulted in a high level of expertise when it came to understanding how to capture young people’s attention.

Henry Jenkins’ (2012a) states that approximately 50% of IC’s programming budget is spent on media and event production, largely in the US, with the goal of bringing awareness to political situations and promoting international support of peace-keeping efforts. However, Grant Oyston goes further by stating “Invisible Children spends less than a third of the money they have raised on direct services in North Uganda and bordering areas. The majority of their funding is focused on advocacy, filmmaking and fundraising” (2012, We got trouble). IC’s vested interest in the medium of film demonstrates that the IC team’s over-riding aim is to have an impact on social activism through the distribution of empowering and engaging videos.

Some bloggers argue that Kony 2012’s main intention was to create a social media revolution however, I would argue that statements like these are rather too negative about IC’s authenticity. Just because IC invests a lot of time and money in social media it does not necessarily follow that their motives, regarding the saving of children in Uganda, are, therefore, questionable and the value of their work undermined. Awareness is a key element in creating movement and change in our society.

2. Entertaining and engaging content

IC have been presented with many awards for their innovative and creative videos including the “2013 Humanitarian Visionary Award.” (Blecher, 2013, Video Visionary Award). This award pays tribute to the captivating content IC has created as a non-for-profit organisation in order to capture the public’s attention of complex issues. Noelle West, director of communications at IC, explains that IC believes “content is king. It has to be the most compelling and the most astonishing way to tell a story. It needs to be a quality story that is moving in hope that the viewer wants to participate” (Blecher, 2013, Video Visionary Award).

Right from the start of the video it is intense. You almost feel nervous or scared for reasons you cannot begin to explain. Even the eerie music in the background makes you feel uncomfortable. As the video continues the images and pictures draw you mercilessly in. Jason Russell is the narrator and tells you “this is an experiment but in order for it to work you have to pay attention” (Invisible Children, 2012, Kony video). It is almost like a game that you want to be part of. But most of all you are intrigued. As the movie continues you start to see a personal connection between Russell and Jacob, a child from Uganda. There are snippets of footage from when Russell went to Uganda and we hear Jacob, as a young child, saying “I would rather die than stay alive on earth” (Invisible Children, 2012, Kony video). These kind of comments evoke sadness and a desire for change from its intended audience.

Ethan Zuckerman (2012), a fellow member of the MacArthur Youth and Participatory politics research hub, has looked in some depth at the campaign and believes the simplicity of the narrative interferes with the real complexity of the issue in order to create a more watchable movie. His report is quite cynical about how the story is communicated to the public and he believes that the video is falsely communicating facts which result in more harm than good.

The watchable movie comprises of Russell sharing the story of his friendship with Jacob which shows a real connection between IC and a child in Uganda. Rather than just identifying the children in Uganda as a whole they have identified one struggling child to allow the audience to fully connect with, and feel the pain, he is going through. Russell has provided real video footage of life in Uganda which makes the audience feel more closely linked to what is going on and compelled to help. The simplistic language that is criticised by Zuckerman and Oyston is used by Russell to tell his son the story of how “dad’s job is to capture the bad guys” (Invisible Children, 2012, Kony video). Zuckerman argues that we are being asked to join the Kony campaign literally by being spoken to as if we were five years old. “This extremely simple narrative is compelling and easily disseminated” (2012, Unpacking Kony 2012). Zuckerman (2012) adds that a more complex narrative would look at the less eye-catching and less exciting story of Uganda’s systematic failure to protect the Acholi people of Northern Uganda and the numerous community efforts to mediate conflict and increase stability. It would aim to rebuild the infrastructure and emphasise the economic consequences of portraying Northern Uganda as a war zone. This of course would depict less glossy images and “show a narrative that is a lot harder to share and a lot harder to go viral” (2012, Unpacking Kony 2012).

Chris Blattman, a political scientist at Yale who has been investigating the IC before the 2012 commotion also agrees with Zuckerman’s annoyance with IC’s fairytale story. “There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving Africa” (Blattman, 2009, Visible Children).

However I have to partly disagree with Zuckerman and Blattman. Although the simplistic and glossy work by IC is not always portraying the full story in Uganda the campaign needed to be told simply to allow the millions of people watching it to understand and stay engaged. In a world where our attention spans are decreasing (Strauss, 2014) it is quite easy to close a video link within a couple of seconds because of boredom and the availability of other more instantly appealing material. IC needed to create a campaign that would hold people’s attention for longer than fifteen minutes on a hard-hitting subject and that is no mean feat. I would also argue that Zuckerman and Blattman similarly fail to mention that not everyone has the same intellectual skills which would allow them to understand the whole complexity of the issue. Because IC’s main priority is to reach as many people as they can across the educational spectrum it would seem apposite that their video should be simple and direct. Misrepresentation of the facts is certainly not acceptable but reducing them to an easily accessible format in order to create a video that will be watched by millions means that the ends have justified the means. If the video had not been appealing we might not even be discussing Kony right now.

3. Aimed at youths

As stated above the content produced was engaging and captivating for a younger audience. IC had years of involvement in producing videos that had motivated youths. They knew the content they had produced would act as a key motivator for young people. Ligler-Vilenchik (2012b) states the Kony 2012 video has mostly been popular with 13-17 year old female Americans as well as 18-24 year old male Americans in sharing of the video through their various social networks. In 2010-2011 Ligler-Vilenchick and her team interviewed thirty IC youth members who told her how they learnt about IC and how they became social activists. Ruth an IC intern said “they showed me the film and I remember being so floored like I cannot believe that this is going on. Something in me shifted that night” (Ligler-Vilenchik via Jenkins, 2012b, Youth are drawn to IC).

Ligler-Vilenchik (2012b) believes that by listening to these members’ stories it gives a good insight into how many young people felt when they first watched Kony 2012. If IC’s aim was to make a video that triggered overwhelming emotion they succeeded and the upshot of this was that the need to share it was inevitable. Young people felt so affected after watching the video that the quickest and simplest way for them to create a movement was to share and talk about Kony with their friends in an instant, online environment.

4. Spreadability

Jenkin’s (2013, p4) has created the concept “Spreadability” which refers to “the technical resources that make it easier to circulate some kinds of content than others, the economic structures that support or restrict circulation, the attributes of a media text that might appeal to a community’s motivation for sharing material, and the social networks that link people through the exchange of meaningful bytes.”

In the Kony video Russell asks viewers to spread the video. IC had produced a video that was captivating and engaging and now they needed people to share it. We saw spreadable media at its finest. Through the different social media platforms the distribution became viral both locally and world-wide. People wanted to see this video. People wanted to be part of the Kony movement. Even Justin Bieber and Oprah Winfrey got on board. Through these powerful figures sharing the video via their Twitter accounts it reached millions of people within hours. It also meant many young people wanted to share, and be involved in, the campaign because their idols were on board. These figures’ participation was extremely influential in spreading the video’s message.

The next step from spreadability is durability. Durability engages fewer people but is perhaps more valuable as it allows them to occupy more time and energy becoming involved in a movement’s complexities (Jenkins, 2012a). When looking through IC’s website the notion of durability does not seem to be as evident as you have to search for the information. The significant information about the war in Northern Uganda is less than 1,200 words and not very specific. I would argue that after the amount of money spent to make the campaign well known they should have followed-up with a project ensuring the durability of the cause so that recognition became action.

While Van Dijck, Cubitt and Zuckerman suggest that youths are creating a world of “clicktivism,” which is a term garnered from people supporting a campaign just from a click of a button (Howard, 2014, Clicktivism changing political campaigns), it is also important to look the other way and see what steps were taken by IC to ensure their spreadability led to durability. Unfortunately it is evident that IC provided inadequate durability strategies as no one seems to know what happened with the Kony 2012 campaign since the viral video.

5. Participatory Culture

It was from the spreadability of the video that participatory culture was in full force. People were sharing, commenting and recreating their own videos, blogs and posts in response to the Kony video. Of course this is what the IC would have hoped for with their video but never to such an extent. It is part of our culture now. We feel the need to be engaging in social media platforms like never before. We want to be involved, commenting, sharing and be included in this online world.

Antony, M. G. & Thomas, R.J. (2010, p5) contend that participatory culture allows for the “information and circulation of user-generated content to overturn traditional notions of all-powerful news media that define and restrict a largely passive audience.” The roles between consumers and producers is now shifting and blurring. This can be seen as a positive change in our society as it means consumers are able to select the news that they deem to be important and deserving of the public’s attention rather than allowing dominant media companies to control the way our society thinks (Antony, M. G. & Thomas, R.J, 2010).

Participatory culture means a wider spread of news and opinions are available. While Zuckerman believes the Kony video did more harm than good, I disagree with this statement. Even though the documentary was released and watched by millions it did not mean that it was the only information available. Within five days we saw millions of responses that were shared and circulated on different platforms in response to the campaign. There were countless viewpoints and opinions about the video with facts and figures on why we should or should not heed it. There were responses from journalists in Uganda, peace organisations, ordinary citizens, celebrities and politicians. Participatory culture has allowed us to have a louder voice and offers a variety of news out there for us to search, enjoy and filter through.

Antony and Thomas (2010) continue that the advancement in media platforms has enabled an unprecedented level of creation of media content and participation in a virtual environment. Pew Research Center (Purcell et al. 2010 via Henry Jenkins, 2013) reports that 75 per cent of respondents received news forwarded through email or posted on social network sites and 52 per cent shared links of news with others via different platforms.

50 per cent of people now rely on people around them to tell them the news they need to know. They expect to see it in their Facebook newsfeed, via email, tweeted during the day or a Youtube clip linked to them (Jenkins, 2013). Newsgathering is not just about relying on one professional source anymore but on a range of news platforms and people to inform you.

Other theorists are less optimistic in comparison to Jenkins about participatory culture being an open platform for everyone. Academics argue that the inequalities relating to class, race, gender, age and geographical location mean there is a relatively large participation gap between those whose voices are always out there and those who are capable of saying very little. Cubitt (2013, p26) says “the ethical, political, economic, and environmental futures of network communications and new media are more generally in flux. Struggle for governance will be exacerbated by the accelerating ‘Internet of things’ and ubiquitous computing.” Castell also points out “there is a participation gap between the so-called interacting, those who are able to select their multidirectional circuits of communication – and the interacted – those who are provided with a restricted number of pre-packaged choices” (Castells, 2000 [1996], p. 402).

In response to the viewpoints above I believe the positives of participatory culture outweigh the negatives. We have to be realistic and accept that our society is never going to be completely equal. There are always going to be those who are less advantaged, right from the moment they are born, with regard to health, gender, race and money. But participatory culture is by its very nature inclusive and accessible and does, therefore, give a voice to those who might otherwise be silenced. Another positive effect it has is that it acts as a form of policing on those in positions of power. They are more publically accountable than ever before and tend to respond more urgently and effectively to public outcry. Participatory culture has helped to give a measure of power and influence back to the people.

6. Facebook, the platform of sharing

Kony 2012 would never have been able to happen if it was not for social media platforms like Facebook. These social networks have allowed society to link, post, comment and discuss news within seconds. Van Dijck (2013) believes Facebook has set the bar for sharing and how the ecosystem is run. Facebook has created this social, connected world with 835 million users worldwide in March 2012 (Van Dijck, 2013). Mark Zuckerberg told Times reporters that “Facebook’s mission was to make the world a more open and connected place” (Van Dijck, 2013, p45).

Facebook has opened up the opportunity for Kony and other social movements to occur. They have created a network that encourages you to share your ideas and be an engaging personality figure within your own circle of friends. Each time you post something you is it what my friends want to see? When people read news on someone’s Facebook page it isn’t about what the producer is trying to say but what the person who has shared it is saying about themselves.

People enjoy circulated media from their friends as it reflects shared interests. The Kony video would have represented different messages to the different communities who shared it. While some people shared it because they had an emotional attachment, others would have shared it because of their interest in media, to criticise it, or to comment on the portrayal of Uganda. There were many different conversations that it enabled people to have within their different communities.

However this role of sharing and spreading isn’t completely new and cannot all be attributed to Kony. Innovative tools have created rapid global expansion and a greater visibility than ever before. The circulation of information, word of mouth recommendations and sharing content has always been how people interacted with each other. It is the rise in technology that has allowed the expansion of it.

7. IC’s target market on Facebook

IC knew that the majority of youths were active Facebook users and with 835 million users worldwide (Van Dijck, 2013) they knew how effortlessly it could be circulated through communities. Facebook has changed the way our society functions; what we share; how open we are; how paranoid we are about updating and maintaining our profile. Psychology researchers Christofides, Muise & Desmarais (via Van Dijck, 2013) argue that identity is created not only by what you share online but what others share and say about you. Popularity is foreseen by the amount of people who actively engage on your profile page.

IC really understood their target audience and how to connect and engage with them. It was seen as cool and knowledgeable to be linked to the Kony video on your Facebook page for all your friends to see. It indicated that you were part of this global movement and that you were someone who was interested in making a difference. Regardless of whether you truly cared about the problems in Uganda, by liking and clicking on links via social media platforms all of your friends would see that you did and maybe that was just as important.


By now it is clear to see how Kony went viral. It wasn’t just a one video sensation that captured millions of people’s attention but a well-crafted video derived from seven key points (refer to appendix 3). They weren’t just any non-for-profit organisation that had no idea what they were doing but were skilled in creating an engaging video that would captivate so many. They produced a video that people wanted to watch and that would motivate, and have an impact on, the young.

From here the IC asked viewers to spread the content. They had produced a video that was capturing and appealing and now they needed people to share it. We saw spreadable media at its finest. Through the different social media platforms people generated the video around their friends which led to it going world-wide. It was from there that participatory culture was in full force. People were sharing, commenting on and recreating their own videos, blogs and posts in response to the Kony video. Of course this is what the IC would have expected with their video but never to the extent that it achieved.

None of this could have happened if it was not for social media platforms like Facebook as people were able to link and post the content. It was from these platforms that Kony was even able to exist and it was the first time a sensation like this has occurred though social media platforms. Ultimately it was because IC understood their target audience and knew how to engage with them. They knew that the majority of youths were active Facebook users; they knew how often people were on it and they knew how easy it was to circulate content through friends. It is through the use of these seven important points that IC carefully constructed a video that became a viral sensation and a social media revolution.


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