Last Halloween, I helped organize a group of FAU students on a door-to-door fund raiser to benefit the non-profit organization Invisible Children. The idea itself was simple enough: groups like UNICEF have been capitalizing on the Halloween market for years. We would get dressed up in costumes, travel around the community, and ask for spare change rather than tricks or treats. What could go wrong?
Nearly an hour later, we found the answer ourselves. We reconvened with the main group to count our earnings and were dismayed to find that we were hardly ten dollars richer for all of our troubles. With almost fifteen students going door-to-door on Halloween, we had raised the equivalent of one movie ticket. We would have raised more money by each donating a dollar. What happened? Why did our message fall deaf on the ears of our south Jupiter, Fl. community?
Nearly five months later, Invisible Children Inc. released a 30-minute film called Kony 2012 that offered the same message and then asked for donations. While our efforts fell short of our desired goal, the Kony 2012 video instantly took off. Within its first day, it had over a million views. By the end of the week, the video had been seen 100 million times, breaking records for the fastest video of all time to hit that mark (yes, faster than Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” or “Charlie bit my Finger”). #stopkony was trending on twitter for days, Invisible Children immediately sold out of everything offered on their online store, and the organization was soon flooded with media requests and invitations to sit with anyone from Piers Morgan to Anderson Cooper.
After the initial tidal wave of Kony 2012 crashed, a surge of negative blogs and op-eds hit the mainstream and rumors began to catch fire. With almost the same speed that Kony 2012 went viral, people around the world began to grab and spread these rumors. Within mere weeks, it seemed that everyone knew not only Kony’s name, but Invisible Children’s detailed finances, the names of all their donors, and the history of the LRA conflict. Even today, when I tell people that I used to work with Invisible Children they ask me if I’ve heard rumors that the war is over and that Joseph Kony is dead.
As a psychology student with an avid interest in human behavior and social phenomena, Kony 2012 has brought several questions to mind. Why was Kony 2012 so successful while my Halloween fund raiser flopped? Why did Kony 2012, a half-hour documentary, catch the interest of so many young people? Why did the negativity and rumors spread so quickly afterwards? And more importantly, what is the next step from here? Today, over two months since Kony 2012 was originally released, the dust has settled enough to put together a picture of what happened earlier this spring.
Before I go on, I want to throw out one little disclaimer. This is neither a support nor a critique of Invisible Children or Kony 2012. What follows is merely an analysis of the effectiveness of the campaign and its subsequent attacks. I propose three explanations for the Kony 2012 phenomenon: the foot-in-the-door method of encouraging commitment, effectively mobilizing a network of dedicated supporters, and bandwagoning.
Foot in the Door
In social psychology, the foot-in-the-door phenomenon suggests that if you can get someone to agree to a small commitment, they will be more likely to agree to a bigger commitment in the future. According to PsychCentral, if your friend asks you to decorate 200 cupcakes for a PTA bake sale, you will be more likely to agree to help if you first agreed to assist in a smaller task, like shopping for ingredients. Once your foot is in the door, it's easier to ask for a larger commitment.
This translates perfectly to the success of Kony 2012. If you can get someone to hit the play button on a youtube video, you have at least two minutes of their attention. If you can hook them at the beginning (like Kony 2012 does with its quick-paced narrative and flashy filmmaking), then you can get the viewer to commit to the whole 30-minute film. And if you can get them to finish the video, you are in a really good position to make your pitch. In this case, the pitch was as simple as clicking “share.”
Justifiably, Invisible Children has been criticized for encouraging what some call a culture of slactivists, a term that mocks the internet generation for believing that sharing a video or posting a tweet can lead to social change. The critics argue that sharing a video does nothing to create real or permanent change. It doesn’t bring Joseph Kony out of the bush and it doesn’t bring child soldiers home.
But the real brilliance behind the Kony 2012 movement is that, on a large enough scale, it is just the amount of commitment that is needed. Invisible Children wanted to create a world-wide awareness campaign to highlight a 26-year conflict in central Africa. What better way to spread awareness than to get a large amount of people to make a small commitment? If you can get enough people talking about an issue, then that issue is elevated to the level of public consciousness. If you get the right people to talk about it, you can create real change. The Kony 2012 experiment was brilliant for this reason: it effectively mobilized the internet generation and used their collective voice to put weight behind the issue.
Contrary to popular belief, Kony 2012 did not happen overnight. Invisible Children has been around for nearly ten years. They have created several films, organized a number of awareness events, and played a critical role in pushing the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act through the U.S. Congress. Each semester, they launch a new awareness campaign that brings representatives from the organization and speakers from Uganda to around half a million students across the United States. And their support base is strong.
Last year, 90,000 people committed to staying silent for 25 hours to recognize each year since the LRA conflict started. Those supporters raised 1.7 million dollars in the spring and came back in the fall to raise another $1.7 million for Invisible Children’s programs in D.R. Congo and C.A.R. These are not slacktivists. These tens of thousands of anonymous supporters make up the backbone of Invisible Children.
When Kony 2012 was first made public on March 5th, they were waiting. These dedicated supporters were the ones who first saw the video, first started sharing it, and first started tweeting with the hashtag #stopkony. According to Social Flow, “
Whether you like it or not, Kony 2012’s initial support (and later criticism) was started by only a few people and amplified through mass bandwagonning. In his book TheTipping Point, renowned author Malcolm Gladwell describes the types of people that start fast-spreading social “epidemics” like Kony 2012. He calls these people Mavens, meaning “one who accumulates knowledge” (60), and describes them as people who “have the knowledge and the social skills to start word-of-mouth epidemics. What sets Mavens apart, though, is not so much what they know but how they pass it along. The fact that Mavens want to help, for no other reason than because they like to help, turns out to be an awfully effective way of getting someone’s attention” (67).
The Mavens are the ones driving the bandwagon. They first see the film and start spreading it to their network of friends, who quickly jump on board. Those friends share it with their friends, who pass it along to their friends and before long, the wagon is getting pretty full. Before I offend anyone, I want to add one caveat: bandwagonners are essential for the epidemic spread of a movement like Kony 2012. It is essentially because of their involvement that movements like this become popular. But nevertheless, these are people who often do not do their research before making a donation, or who can be easily swayed by opposing views. Unfortunately, it is just as easy to jump off of a bandwagon as it is to jump on.
This, I would like to propose, is the reason for the rapid rise and fall of the Kony 2012 campaign. Remember those Mavens I mentioned before? Well, those are the people who do their research. They are the ones that start the blogs, who challenge the bandwaggoners, and encourage people to think before they donate. They are the ones who called into question some of the claims that Invisible Children makes in Kony 2012; that started talking about IC’s finances and Charity Navigator rating. They voiced legitimate concerns and showed a respectable longing for a fuller picture before pledging their support or commitment to the cause.
But once the Mavens started driving a different wagon, it didn’t take long for the bandwagonners to jump on board. What started as a challenging opinion was taken as incontrovertible evidence that Invisible Children was a “scam.” Bandwagonners, again without doing their research, jumped on a train heading in a different direction and mistook rumors or misinformation as fact. As rumors spread, theories erupted, and trust in the movement wavered, it suddenly became “cool” not to support Invisible Children. In a stroke of irony, the critical bandwagonners began to criticize other bandwagonners for jumping on the Kony 2012 train. I personally have been challenged in my support for Invisible Children by people who believe that Joseph Kony is dead or that the war is over. Fortunately, I have a strong enough background in the conflict to recognize facts based in evidence as opposed to rumor and myth. But nonetheless, it is scary to witness how quickly and effectively rumor can manipulate public opinion.
I want to take a minute here to make an appeal to the bandwagonners. It is healthy to be critical. I once saw Tom Shadyac speak (director of I Am, Ace Ventura, Bruce Almighty, etc.) and one thing he suggested stands out clearly in my mind: question everything. When you see a film like Kony 2012, do some research. But at the same time, make sure you research the critics as well. At the end of the day, know what you support and where your loyalties lie. But NEVER be afraid to believe in something.
So to bring things back home, what did Kony 2012 get right and why did my door-to-door fund raiser pale in comparison? For one, Invisible Children’s video effectively utilized foot-in-the-door tactics to get viewers to commit to the campaign. It is easy for someone to give spare change to a student on Halloween without even knowing what they donated to. But someone who invests a full half hour watching an emotional film is much more prepared to take the next step, especially when that step is as easy as reposting or sending out a tweet.
Additionally, Invisible Children had a resource that I clearly lack: thousands of dedicated supporters. Without them, Kony 2012 would not have happened. They are the ones who made it work. Malcolm Gladwell suggests that social epidemics aren’t started by the masses, but rather by a special few. I went door-to-door trying to spread awareness and raise money in a brute-force method. But Invisible Children knew better. They knew that, as long as they put the Kony 2012 video in the right hands, those people would get the job done much faster and far more effectively.
And finally, the bandwagonners. Kony 2012’s success hinged on the willingness for people to latch onto an idea. The dedicated supporters and the Mavens helped to drive the movement, but it wouldn’t have been as successful without the masses jumping on board. They are the ones who watched the video 100 million times, who pledged their support online for the campaign, and who caused such a stir that people like President Barack Obama (you might have heard of him) took notice. You can knock on doors and preach to people until they pass out, but all your efforts will be useless if you can’t convince people to jump on board.
I want to leave you with one thought. At the beginning of the film, Kony 2012 opens with the words “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” When the filmmakers first penned those words, they could not have possibly anticipated what was to follow. But there is truth in those words. Regardless of whether or not you support the organization, it is undeniable that the message of Kony 2012 resonated with people. For a solid week, the voices of the world were united in a chorus for global peace. Social media can be a powerful tool; one that can become dangerous in the wrong hands. But I think there is promise for the future. In March, Invisible Children briefly tapped into the collective empathy of a united humanity. I think that empathy still exists and can be brought forth again. Sometimes we just need the right voice to rally behind.