Whether you love it, hate it, or know nothing about it, the online phenomenon that is the “KONY2012” video offers many valuable lessons for us in communicating the work we do.

What is this KONY 2012 all about?

Never has a video – and certainly not one created by an NGO – generated such heated and conflicting responses, or achieved such immediate global reach. Fast approaching the 100-million-viewer mark, in the week following its launch, coverage of the KONY2012 video infiltrated every major news outlet in the world, and ignited a storm of commentary among Facebookers and Tweeters of all ages.

If you have not yet seen it, KONY2012 is a slick, expensive 30-minute film produced by a US-based NGO, Invisible Children, as part of an international campaign to arrest the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Joseph Kony. It gives a brief history of the LRA, and creates a sense of urgency about the fate of the children abducted into the LRA. Viewers are told that the solution lies in their hands, through passing on the video, contacting US government representatives and celebrities, and buying bracelets and posters to spread the message.

The video has attracted enormous support, but also enormous criticism. Detractors accuse it of being dangerously simplified, patronizing, inaccurate and manipulative. To learn more, I encourage you to read some of the truly excellent pieces of investigation, analysis, satire and reflection published on the issue, including a growing number of responses from Ugandans.

Why does this matter to African grassroots organisations?

Whatever the faults of the campaign, it does show us just how effective social media can be in gaining rapid visibility for an issue, and generating financial and other support. YouTube videos, online discussions, blog posts, Facebook updates and Twitter messages are all accessible platforms open to anyone with a mobile phone, at a cost affordable even to small grassroots organization. They offer us the means to tell our story, and have it heard across the world.

And our story has been missing. Organisations working on the ground in Africa - like all of us on this network – are often not being heard in global debates. We need to change that.

So what can we learn from KONY 2012?

Here are five important lessons that you can take away from the campaign to make your own work more effective, whilst not falling into some of the pitfalls of this campaign.

1) Make it emotional

Empathy, sorrow, joy, anger - these are the things that make us human, personalize an issue, and motivate us to act, learn, or care. The KONY 2012 campaign provides emotional resonance in abundance, and as a result tens of millions of people have engaged with it.

How many excellent, worthy causes have we been working on for years, wishing for a response just like this? We can learn from this in how we present our work, while remembering that this approach, borrowed from the film industry, can become a form of emotional pornography. We must take care how we use them. A great example of a feel-good video by a small organisation that doesn’t ignore the agency of the people involved is Mama Hope’s celebration of connectivity, their “Stop the Pity. Unlock the Potential” Campaign.

What you can do is this:

Think of the personal stories you have that illustrate the importance of your work, both in your voice and the voice of people your organization is working with. Trust me, you have these stories. Think of the people who have humbled you and awed you; the conversations that have stuck with you; the things you have learned in the course of your work. Tell them in ways that are personal, respectful, and that help outsiders see the power, courage, passion and humanity of the people involved.

2) Urgency equals action

Another key to the success of the KONY2012 campaign was the inherent sense of urgency woven into it; emphasising a “window of opportunity” that will soon close, and the terrible suffering of children which must not continue. For the same reason, efforts to fundraise for earthquake relief funds and other sudden disasters or famines are radically more successful than for ongoing issues of malnutrition.

How can we use this in our own campaigns, to transform long-standing issues with no easy answer into a cause for immediate concern? Setting deadlines, linking actions to key events, showing the problem through the eyes of those affected, and providing real-time feedback (tactics used to great effect by Avaaz) are all smart and practical ways to underline a need for action. The Girl Effect uses powerful videos to transform the long-term issue of education for girls into a subject for urgent action.

What you can do is this:

Look for those anchors and deadlines. Perhaps you want to change local policy – it might be effective to ask people to sign a petition before you attend a certain meeting with an official. Or if you have a funding target to reach for scholarships, set the first day of the school year as your deadline.

3) People want to act

Once you’ve gotten people to care about something, they will usually ask “so what can I do?” If there is no answer to this question, your audience may be left more cynical and apathetic than before. The KONY 2012 campaign’s success was due to the clear, simple action it provided for ordinary people to take. As Max Fisher summed it up, the video “sets viewers up for a message so gratifying and fulfilling that it is almost impossible to resist: there is a terrible problem in the world, you are the solution, and all you have to do is pass along this video.”

However dubious the message or methodology of the campaign, the millions of people who supported it were motivated by a genuine desire to make a difference. How can we find a way to transform this desire to be of service into sustainable, well-thought out actions?

Asking people to “Like”, tweet or forward a message to others can be an appropriate action if, for example, you want to demonstrate to a government representative that you have support for your idea. There have been great examples of creative actions that ask people to do something a little bit more – such as the inspired Movember moustache drive, or the TckTckTck campaign’s invitation to submit video messages for leaders at the Rio+20 conference.

What you can do is this:

Next time you create your own campaign, make sure you have a reason for engaging people, and a well thought-through plan for how they can take action. Don’t just inform them, ask them to do something (and be sure to provide feedback and be sure to thank your supporters). You might be surprised by the response.

4) Your voice is crucial

Many of the criticisms of the KONY2012 campaign highlighted the lack of accurate, local voices used in the video. Reporters and other commentators quickly began to seek out organisations on the ground in Uganda to provide them with insights and information, in recognition of the fact that the most suitable people to talk about the issues were people living and working there.

This shows there is a thirst for authentic stories to be told from the grassroots level, to educate, mobilize and inspire people. And this represents an opportunity for us all working on the ground.

What you can do is this:

Recognise that you have something important to say, and start exploring the possibilities opened up by social media. My organization does not have a great deal of money, or experience, but we are experimenting with ways of building networks, telling stories and sharing insights.

Closing Thoughts

For those of us still hesitating to dip into the social media world, here are a few final things to think about. 

First, it costs very little, and doesn’t require much expertise. Even creating short videos can now be done inexpensively.

Second, mobile phone use in Africa is escalating, giving more and more people here access to it. A teacher in Brighton, England can now connect with a teacher in Lusaka, Zambia, and discuss first-hand the concerns and achievements of their respective schools and learn from one another.

Thirdly, it doesn’t have to cheapen or compromise your mission if used thoughtfully. 

And finally, as an organization doing what you do, you have something valuable to offer. The world is eager to hear what you have to say.

Interested in learning more? 

Interesting in learning more about how to use social media in your work? We're working on a follow-up to this post, which will look at a range of existing resources and practical tips for our members. Please send us your suggestions, and keep checking back in the coming weeks!


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I think if you want a good Ugandan response, look here to Rosebell's Blog.

I am in Australia I have corresponded with and supported young Ugandans  (not Rosebell) including ex-LRA  define their projects, shape their lives, according to their proirities, their self-empowerment, since 2004.

I am told by them that Kony2012 is causing 'much trouble now in Uganda'.

My first concern is that this is opening wounds, it is causing a return to guilt-ridden memories and horrors for too many. 

For all that Kony2012 may have drawn attention to a problem, albeit by providing hopelessly out-of-date misleading information, it also serves, as your commentary seems also to serve, the consciences or the egos of people in the west, not anyone living as survivor of any connection with or impact of the LRA.

Thanks Dennis for providing that link, and I am personally heartened by how many Ugandan voices are being heard.

I am curious as to why you believe this article serves the "consciences or the egos of people in the west"?

I ask because I particularly took care not to endorse the campaign. Equally, I didn't go deeply into the criticism of it, or my personal feelings about it, as I believe that has been amply discussed elsewhere. I tried to limit the article to analysing it for lessons "to make your own work more effective, whilst not falling into some of the pitfalls of this campaign".

I also thought I took great care to highlight some of those pitfalls throughout the article.

Do you think I didn't do that adequately? I would love to hear more.

(As a little background information, the organisation I work for is not based in the west :) We are an indigenous African ngo working across east and southern Africa. And we also have worked with partners in Uganda doing great psychosocial support work with survivors of the LRA, so I appreciate your concerns about revocery and potential trauma)

Thank you Riona for your courteous and thoughtful reply to my somewhat mannerless first entry to Kabissa. I apologise for having come into the room as a stranger and been critical without much explanation. 

I have read the other comments and followed links, thanks.

I have also looked at Tobias's history (thank you for welcoming comment Tobias) with admiration. I note that while living in Australia I was last year twice in Seattle and visited beautiful Bainbridge Island with my daughter who lives in Seattle. I will certainly hunt for Kabissa next time... and you will find the Bainbridge Island Ferry here :-)

Riona, I've also run through the REPSSI website, such a huge compass and sensible focus. 

My first response reflected a disappointment that, while you had a specific purpose in your article, there was not a clearer statement of the psychosocial damage done by Kony2012 - in Uganda. Rather than write more here now on this, I offer this link to entry in my blog yesterday. 


I do have Fred Obala's permission to quote him there.

Riona asked:

I am curious as to why you believe this article serves the "consciences or the egos of people in the west"?

My concern is about not staying inside this seeming house of mirrors in the social media. Where Tobias speaks of the need to be tactical, I would prefer the broader term and start point of 'strategy' - the focus needs to start and remain always on the people in the other place whom one seeks to 'help'. The desire to help, the sense of right or obligation to help, is not the same as what flows from the hearts of those to whom the 'help' is addressed, we tend to shape what we think is helpful inside our own frames of reference. 'Wanting to help' is a self-serving emotion in the first instance and without contemplation and empathy it may be a negative. I do note the number of people commenting on Rosebell's blog who asked about how and why to do what. 

I feel that to understand social media one might be well served to begin with Dostoyevsky's The Double and interpretations (for example) of the search for self and the tendency to see the world as mirrors to self. From that link at 'for example' we have:

Mochulsky writes of The Double: We are again presented with the problem of the loneliness of the human soul, the solitude of consciousness, the escape underground.
Golyadkin himself in one of his last frenzied outbursts to an imaginary interlocutor says of his double: He’s another person, your Excellency, and I’m another person too; he’s apart and I am really myself by myself too; I’m really myself by myself, your Excellency, really myself by myself.

[I hear Jason Russell in that! D]

I am not wanting to make this overcomplicated, I am trying to find insight into how people entangled in social media can be brought to EMPATHY - can be brought out of the loops of loud loopiness or affected high virtue on the internet, to seeing past all the mirrors and actually connecting with real people at the other end. I think you have to begin thinking at that point, not at the PR person's point of how to manipulate the existing system.

My background and how I became involved in Africa via the internet:

My career, interrupted by illness, was in the foreign service after education in anthropology. I was active in 2003-04, with speeches and other things, against the Iraq war.

However I reached the easily reached conclusion that the individual's ability to influence national security policy was heading towards zero and so embarked on seeking contact person to person.Via the UN online volunteers site I found Nabuur, and became enamoured and supportive of the concept.... but in the end Nabuur seems more concerned to empower Nabuur than those it seeks to assist. The number of participants is entirely deceptive, all reigstrants ever are described as participants. Jessica, whose photo promotes in the right column at http://www.nabuur.com/, has not been there for a long time. Etc. And the Nabuur 'village' projects produce too many cursory offerings of impracticals to people in real need, seeking solutions or pots of gold.

Serendipity Rules:

A rape crisis centre project in the DR Congo, which I helped set up, but which I've taken from the web because of problems at the other end nevertheless brought the amazing trauma counsellor Victoria Bentley out of California with what she said to me was a secular calling to the DRC - she went to Bukavu, found what was going wrong, rescued women and sewing machines from our corrupted centre and has gone on brilliantly, see her blog. So, lesson one from this for me: things happen on the web in unintended ways, like other forms of evolution. Tactics involves a lot of waiting and jumping to enable opportunities. By contrast Kony2012 has the tactical quality of stamping on the toothpaste tube. There are, from Kony2012, fragments of interest now floating in the internet air which might be attracted to sound projects. However, too many projects present the concerned individual with protective layers of NGO organisations and power systems, and do not take people towards empathy and human engagement. 

Time Rules when you are leaving the initiative to the people who must be empowered:

It was Fred Obala who approached me in 2004, on the sidelines of Nabuur, We have remained in contact, an amazing experiece for both of us, Fred is the same age as my youngest child. Several of us helped Fred plan this ("No don't ask me what your objectives should be, please tell us" - a confronting experience for people who have been accustomed to talking to the metal doors of international NGO Landcruisers, it seems) and years later lots of stuff happening. But it's been a hard road, a complicated road, no straight road, friendship built from 2004 through terrible continuing trials of violence and health problems and threats from clan members who see connection with the world as evil.

A lot of time, a lot of strength. And quite a few projects I get close to go off the rails, because in the business of drawing out what people really want there is often the problem, the legacy of charity and dump-aid, of 'give me a building complete'. You know this stuff...

Telling the stories, securing the initiative for the people who must be empowered:

In addition to this account of his plans and community support, Fred wanted his gruesome story told on the web, back long before he 'outed' himself as a former boy soldier... the gruesome story is linked from that page. Others had said you must not think about it or write it Fred. But I had read, Fred had pointed me to, the writing of Beatrice Lamwaka on this matter, on the importance in trauma recovery of giving people voice, getting their stories down. I put a paper of Beatrice Lamwaka on a Nabuur page. As Fred wrote to me yesterday regarding his latest statement: "Our voice reaching up will give a hero uplift for unknown war victims and disceased."  ... I hear the pain in that ... 

Kony2012: so, biggest question - who has the right to tell the stories? My view is that we succeed to the extent that we enable people in the Third World to speak for themselves, and we enable people in the simple-minded post-industrial virtual-consuming google-eyed world to sit up and listen to the people in the Third World and enter into discussion directly.

This site I host and helped design (which is not up to date) gave voice to the locals in a war-devastated eastern DRC community and drew in a big Canadian project. That community remains full of grumbles of the 'where's the money?' kind. See Mama Mado's comment on that. Meanwhile I have helped Vince, the contact with that Nyalebbe project, who lives over the border in Nebbi Uganda (blessed with power and connectivity) to set up his business and IT centre.. he has many other projects on the stove now such as this, all his own design, just a little advice on the side. The real was in Vince's IT centre business plan: it contains jerrycans of water and the risk analysis notes the security of the man at the end of the street with bow and arrow in the night. 


This is long for comment... but I wanted to try to clarify my view properly. D


My word! I don't even know where to begin. I won't be able to begin doing justice to your reply... perhaps could only really do that over a coffee somewhere in person.

Your response takes me back to some of my early (and limited) engagement with conflict resolution processes, mainly in my home country of Ireland. I haven't experienced an environment compatible with such complete self-reflection since.

I suppose my starting point in writing this post originally was from where I stand now - which is from the PR point of view :) I agree, sadly limited.

Will try to add more when I return home (travelling at present, and using borrowed internet).


A bit overwhelmed by your generous reply Riona :-)

I find that I express ideas best when someone else has bravely explored before... thank you for the opportunity and the provocation to think. Your arguments are essential framework for the process, my concern with what we put through the process.

I think it's always difficult for organisations to remain focused on renewal. 

I have kept by me for meetings this little paper I extracted from a Pew Partners report, years ago:


and this, from an Australian professor of social ecology:


This 2003 report on why some towns in Queensland (northeastern Australian state) prosper reaches some interesting conclusions and recommendations (perhaps start page 57 or 60) ... With sensitivity, they probably cross cultural boundaries:



As to structures for action, I offered some ideas on this a few years ago to Nabuur:





Enjoy the coffee, wherever. I wish my health allowed me to get to Africa! You have a heady mix: Ireland, Azania to Uganda, psychosocial counselling and caffeine! 

As a member at the EAMUN 2011, I'd like to pledge Kabissa Volunteering organisation to have considered the ongoing conflict in Uganda. Having researched about the LRA and their inhuman acts, it'd be my pleasure to be part of 'raising awareness about the LRA'. 
Having debated 'THE QUESTION OF RESOLVING THE ONGOING CONFLICT IN UG' at the security council, as a volunteer i'd love to pass on the knowledge i have regarding the LRA and possible solutions to solve the conflict. 

Thank you so much, Riona, for taking the time to attempt to put KONY 2012 into context for Kabissa members and to help us to extract the usable lessons from the phenomenon. Thanks also Dennis and Anonymous for your comments already - it is fascinating how far reaching this story is. 

Focussing on social media capacity building for grassroots organizations for the moment, I have three points on the Kony story I'd like to make: 

  1. Kony 2012 is a reminder that organizations must be tactical in their use of any tools in support of their mission. Social media when used tactically can have an enormous impact - as we have seen by KONY 2012. So yes, if you want to be relevant and have your voice heard on the global stage, you have to learn to use social media tactically.
  2. To use these tools we need to learn concrete skills - as Riona says, social media tools are accessible and not beyond the budget and means of even very small grassroots organizations - nevertheless to create an effective film to distribute via youtube (even a short one) you need to learn how to record video and edit it into a compelling film. Start learning those skills now. 
  3. And finally, in being tactical with our skills, we have to keep in mind that our videos and other social media can't be all things for all people if we want to be impactful. We have to decide who we are trying to reach when producing a blog post, a video or any social media content. Though the Internet is global and theoretically puts us in direct contact with billions of other people, it is the simplest, most compelling, most easily digested content that gets accessed by the most people - but that content also has to be so watered down that it will be unlikely to result in any sort of useful action/outcome. In this connection I want to draw attention to a great post by Sam Gregory of WITNESS that cuts through the distractions around the Kony 2012 story and highlights tactical lessons for advocacy organizations - Kony 2012: Juggling Advocacy, Audience and Agency When Using #Video4Change

I am sure that in the days and weeks ahead more examples and insights will come to light. I'd be glad to see those shared on Kabissa as well. Please also share opportunities and resources for learning concrete skills, which we'll put together in a new blog post in the coming weeks.



I appreciate that the author put both sides here, but I don't think she really made the point, about social media, that Invisible Children was not expecting this sucess, Hence why they did recieve so much critisism coming from such a high success. WE have to remember the context of Kony 2012, rather than just brush it off as being too simplistic. Read: For the Love of Controversy: The Kony 2012 Campagin to get a better grasp of this clash.

Yet, I really like what this person had to say about learning from social media from this. Good anylisis. I was wondering where the fifth point is though... Oh well! Good luck with social media!

This is a great point about the unpredictable nature of social media, and I very much enjoyed your blog post on this issue. It's something for us all to consider - how little control we have once our messages are released on YouTube or Twitter. They can reach far beyond the originally intended audience.

And: ooops. You're right about the mysteriously missing fifth point - we renamed it "closing thoughts" and forgot to change the introductory line. Well spotted!

Yes indeed. And I note this just now at Twitter, which gives me more confidence in my thoughts as expressed yesterday:


An essay isn't a tally of "correct points." It is a way of placing new bits of language, and thus new thoughts, into the minds of others.

Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Thank you so much for sharing. I need to read more from Teju.

The principle of "first, do no harm" has really been resonating with me over the last few weeks, so I was very glad to see him bring it in here. There are several interesting discussions we could take forward just from that - the implications of intervening anywhere other than your own context (and yet the continuing lure of doing so).

Hi Riona and everyone, 

This is no surprise to any of us, but the KONY2012 discussion has quietened down everywhere. Today I did see one more interesting note (from Tactical Tech's new In The Loop newsletter) about the campaign that is relevant to NGOs seeking to learn new strategies for online campaigning.  

A viral video campaign aiming to raise awareness of the activities of
the Ugandan guerilla leader Joseph Kony has had over 86 million viewings
on YouTube. A US agency took the opportunity to help NGOs understand the
astonishing reach and impact achieved by this campaign
"…simplify your site, stripping down all actions or content that
detracts from that core action. Then, focus all of your channels and
messages on that one action. Report back progress. Repeat." But Ethan
Zuckerman warns against such simplification and argues that a more
complex look at the situation "…would look at the numerous community
efforts, often led by women, to mediate conflicts and increase
stability. It would focus on the efforts to rebuild the economy of
northern Uganda, and would recognize the economic consequences of
portraying northern Uganda as a war zone."


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