Wilson Center’s Science & Technology Innovation Program

Kony 2012: The Template for Effective Crowdsourcing?

In Commons Lab, Crowdsourcing on March 13, 2012 at 4:54 pm

This past week, the internet was inundated with blogs, status updates, and tweets about the Kony 2012 Campaign organized by the NGO Invisible Children. I am sure by now most have seen the video or heard about the campaign led by activist and film maker Jason Russell. With more than 100 million views, this video is already being called the most viral video in history.

The goal of the organization and the campaign is to create awareness and garner international attention that the NGO hopes will lead to the eventual arrest of Joseph Kony, the leader of a rebel group that originated in Uganda, who stands accused of brainwashing countless children across northern Uganda, turning the girls into sex slaves and the boys into prepubescent killers. Kony has been charged by the International Criminal Court with numerous charges of crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, and child abduction.

While most people would agree that Kony is a criminal who needs to be captured and punished, there are a variety of opinions in the blogosphere about the organization, the video, and its tone; these opinions span the spectrum from adoration to vitriolic comments. News outlets and bloggers have written about the relevance of this campaign, the intentions of the organization and its questionable finances. Some have criticized the video’s oversimplification of a complex situation, while others have lauded the power in its simplicity.

But what is undeniable is the integral role that social media played in the campaign. This campaign, in my opinion, is a great template for the mobilization of people using social media and social networking systems.

The use of Twitter, Facebook, and celebrity bloggers has catapulted the Kony 2012 video into cyber-stratosphere. As of March 13, the Invisible Children Facebook page has more than 3 million fans and the Stop Kony Facebook page has more than 200,000 fans. The video was initially uploaded on the video sharing site www.vimeo.com on March 2; it has been viewed on that site over 16 million times as of March 13, of which 8.2 million views occurred by March 7. The video was also loaded on YouTube on March 5 and has been viewed over 76 million times. On Twitter, hash tags #StopKony2012 and #InvisibleChildren quickly became two of the top trending topics worldwide.  Google Trends, meanwhile, shows the significant spike in Google searches for the term “Joseph Kony” in the last 30 days.

This message and video are so effective because of the manner in which it uses social media. The video lays out a specific plan to target celebrities and politicians, encouraging supporters to message these individuals via their Twitter pages. Another aspect of the Kony 2012 plan is the Action Kit, which contains a KONY 2012 bracelet with a unique ID number and posters that can be geo-tagged, allowing their impact to be tracked in real time. I believe this is why this video connects with the youth and countless others. It is an important cause and its methods tap into what matters to those who have grown up in this Facebook/digital age – a sense of belonging and being part of something they believe matters and a message that uses art and music, delivered by someone who speaks their language in a forum where they feel most comfortable.

Last month, at the Wilson Center’s round table discussion, Crisis Management 3.0: Social Media and Governance in Times of Transition, the panel noted that a main objective in achieving the discussed goals – a unity of effort that will involve communities and government in responding to crises – is reaching a generation of individuals who have grown up in the digital age and are potential large-scale contributors to the system. However, the panel did not discuss any particular method of achieving this goal. Well, here you go.

The Kony 2012 campaign is a great example of how to connect with these young people. Not necessarily the video, its message, or the organization. But the manner in which this campaign is using social media and social networking tools to deliver that message: The group stated its mission. It connected using tools that young people relate to, such as art. It provided a specific plan and mode of action. It delivered the message using available social networking systems. And it had a convincing messenger.

On April 20, 2012, the Kony 2012 Campaign plans to “Cover The Night” by hitting the streets from sunset to sunrise to cover the streets with Kony 2012 posters for the world to wake up to. This, I believe, will show the true power of social media and social networking systems.

Whether one agrees with the organization’s methods or not, there is no denying that it has mobilized millions of young people into action. It has inspired individuals to research more about the situation in Uganda and drawn their attention to other parts of Africa. The video was a mere catalyst for getting people to learn about issues concerning Uganda and other parts of the continent, including the prevalence of nodding disease in Uganda.

With more than 100 million views garnered so far by the video, is it naïve and overly optimistic to hope that maybe 1,000 of those views will create sustainable interests and action long after #StopKony2012 is no longer trending? Maybe. Is it a possibility? Absolutely.

As Noam Cohen of the New York Times aptly stated, “[w]e are entering an age when the shallow political power of the public — including those too young to vote — will increasingly help shape our policy debates. And yes, that is scary to professional foreign policy experts, much in the same way reference book authors with graduate degrees were rattled by the idea of an online encyclopedia created collectively by amateurs.” This is the reality and the power of social networking as seen during the Arab Spring and now with the Kony 2012 campaign.

In a Thank You video posted by the Invisible Children, Russell stated, “This is a collective. It is a WE. . . . This is about human beings. Human beings waking up to the potential and power that they have.” This, after all, is what social networking and crowdsourcing is all about.

About the author

Olubunmi Emenanjo, JD is an attorney completing her Masters degree in Bioscience Regulatory Affairs at Johns Hopkins University.  She is currently serving as a scholar research assistant with the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C.  She is studying the patent challenges of synthetic biology and the regulatory impact of synthetic biology on biomedical product development.

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