This weekend I became the 55,240,519th person to view a certain YouTube video. Can you guess which one? After being posted on March 5th, a video about a murderous leader of an Ugandan guerrilla group, Joseph Kony, has gone viral. Seriously viral, as in, potentially the most viral video ever. As of this writing the video has over 74 million views.
So who is Joseph Kony? Kony is the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a militant group widely accused of human rights violations including murder, sex slavery, and forcing children to kill “enemies,” which often includes their own parents. Okay, there are a lot of bad people in the world, so why do so many people care about Kony? I mean, normally when a video goes viral it's a hilarious clip short enough for you to show your friends at the bar (the Amazing Race Watermelon video's always worth another look). Or maybe it's a soundbite of Christian Bale acting like a British Psycho. But this video that people just can't get enough of is a 30 min long, politically motivated, not funny at all documentary!
Right now, the title of “most viral” currently belongs to Susan Boyle, the unassuming contestant for Britain’s Got Talent who even succeeded in shocking loudmouth Simon Cowell. According to the Visible Measures Blog, Boyle’s video has over 480 million views to date. But while Boyle’s video reached 70 million views in six days, the 30-minute Kony video topped 70 million in just five. That makes it the fastest growing social video campaign ever created.
“What about the Old Spice Guy?” you say? His Responses campaign was viewed a meager 35 million times in its first week and didn’t reach 70 million views until five months. A strong showing indeed, but the Kony video is flexing the real muscle now.
The video was produced by the non-profit group Invisible Children with the goal of making Joseph Kony a household name among the populace and eventually congressmen and senators with the power to take military action. They’re certainly on track. Not only is the video being viewed like crazy, but people are posting their own clips and commentary. In this new age of interactive media, viewers are investing their own time to record and upload their own thoughts. As I write, 278 video clips have been uploaded to the KONY 2012 YouTube video campaign. As of the 200th video, their average length was six minutes.
KONY2012, the campaign’s official name, has the explicit goal of bringing about the capture and arrest of Joseph Kony by the end of the year. Jason Russell, Invisible Children’s co-founder and maker of the film, argues that if Kony’s not brought to justice by the year’s end, interest will wane and government leaders won’t feel compelled to take action.
Okay, so a ton of people are watching the video. What, if anything, has the video accomplished toward its goals? Here’s a picture of President Obama in May 2010 signing the LRA disarmament bill that calls for “political, economic, military and intelligence support for viable multilateral efforts” to stop the LRA.
The bill had been spearheaded by former Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and garnered the support of 267 members of Congress, making it the most supported piece of Africa legislation in history. Obama said in a statement to the group, “We have seen your reporting, your websites, your blogs, and your video postcards – you have made the plight of the children visible to us all.”
Not bad for a film major.
But not everyone is so enthusiastic about the video. Invisible Children has received all sorts of criticisms ranging from oversimplifying the issue to outright playing on people’s emotions to get their money. Last Friday the video was the subject of discussion on NPR’s Diane Rehm’s Show. Susan Glasser, Editor in Chief of Foreign Policy Magazine pointed out the fact that “Kony and his killers have been actually gone and pushed out of Uganda, which is never mentioned except in passing in the film.”
The group has issued a response to the criticisms.
Whether or not you agree with the group, the fact that a message can be captured in a desktop video and reach millions or tens of millions literally overnight goes to show that you don’t need to be elected to office to effect change – or have an audience with the President of the United States and spur military action. In the 90s, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines spread its message through a groundbreaking technology called email. Their dialup modem message brought about the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. That same year they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
My guess is that our continually-changing use of the Internet has something to do with why a video about an obscure Ugandan militant is more popular than the Old Spice Guy. The Old Spice Guy’s video was released in 2010 – eons ago in terms of our evolution from a TV-watching world to a YouTube/Vimeo/Hulu/On Demand-watching world. And how many views would Boyle’s video have gotten if it were released only last week? If Invisible Children had released their video just a year ago would it have gone so viral? Would they have gotten an invitation to the Oval Office? Would I be writing this article?
To their slogan at the video’s start, “Nothing Is More Powerful Than An Idea Whose Time Has Come,” I would add, “(But Make Sure You Use YouTube).”
After the campaign’s success I’m confident of one thing, that other videos are sure to follow. Videos like the one about Joseph Kony.
You know who Joseph Kony is right?