This article was originally featured in tmrw magazine #19.
Cast your minds back to the heady days of 2012. London hosted the Olympics, there was widespread panic over the Mayan Calendar and three American men launched a campaign to make Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony the most infamous person in the world with the help of a hashtag.
The leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a decades-old guerrilla group, Kony had been indicted for numerous crimes against humanity: among them, kidnapping tens of thousands of children to use as sex slaves and soldiers. The campaign against Kony was led by Invisible Children, a small non-profit founded in 2004 to raise awareness of the LRA. The organisations main tactic was a 30-minute documentary film, posted to Facebook and zealously promoted through Kony 2012–branded profile photos paired with fervent calls to action.
Within six days of its release, Kony 2012 had racked up more than 100 million views, making it, at the time, the most watched viral video in web history. Teens who had previously been numb to images of starving African children were shocked by the film’s heart-wrenching footage and drawn in by the relatable first-person narration of Jason Russell, one of the co-founders of Invisible Children. The plight of the Ugandan children was unconscionable; luckily, thanks to Kony 2012, there was something each of us could do.
We could share the video on Facebook. We could tweet at celebrities. We could add our names to a Stop Kony pledge that bound us to do nothing in particular. We could sign up for recurring monthly donations and if we were truly committed to helping stop Kony’s child-soldier camps, we could buy the $30 Kony 2012 signature “action kit”.
Did it work? Results are mixed. Invisible Children's aim was to raise money and awareness of Kony’s crimes, which it did, collecting $5 million in the first two days of the campaign. It also managed to reach the conscience of the elite. Oprah Winfrey donated $2 million. Bill Gates tweeted the hashtag; Rihanna shared the video. But did it work as a source for change? Well the conflict in Uganda is still ongoing and Kony is still at large.
The following year saw the next hashtag inspired political movement, with the creation of #BlackLivesMatter. The instigator was Alicia Garza, utilising the call for action on her Facebook page in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who gunned down Trayvon Martin. Since then it has become a banner used in the digital and real world by organisations and millions of individuals, loosely and tightly related, all attempting to bring change.
The major difference between Kony 2012 and the Black Lives Matter movement is who was in charge. The latter was created and led by people directly affected by the issues they addressed: gun violence, deportation, racism, and police brutality. These leaders used social media to tell their own stories in their own words. Supporters that shared these experiences felt justification for their own outrage and their plight was seen as one of many, not one of the few. Kony 2012 filtered the plight of Ugandan child soldiers through the eyes of Jason Russell and Invisible Children, who imposed their own ideas for appropriate intervention. Their targets, a population of impressionable youths raised in the digital age ate it up. It was easy to get involved with the Kony 2012 campaign without knowing much about the Ugandan conflict; in fact, the simplistic nature of the whole campaign hinged on the fact few people knew and even fewer would research further once the video had reached its conclusion. This ease of assimilation played a part in the campaigns success and later its stagnation.
Thanks in part to the work of Kony 2012, a hashtag became a legitimate motivating force behind a campaign. Political movements can be created with just a cause and a smartphone. The digital age is now one of change, with each retweet being considered a calls for arms, a charge for the barricade. Welcome to the age of internet activism.