Case Study: Invisible Children

The Invisible Children non-profit organization was formed in 2004 by filmmakers Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole in San Diego, CA. Their aim was to arrest Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) guerrilla, responsible for war crimes, kidnapping of children to train as soldiers and sexual exploitation. The Invisible Children initiative comprised of films documenting their travels to Northern Uganda where they heard accounts of children who had been kidnapped by the LRA. It motivated them to screen their films at churches and schools across America, targeting youth to advocate for these children by raising awareness and donating money. As the films gained recognition they raised millions. They have followers on many popular Web 2.0 media sites like: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Vimeo, Youtube, and Pinterest. Through likes, shares, and hashtags they gained momentum. Their widespread online presence helped them in hosting a Global Night Commute in 2006, representative of the night walks children of Uganda took to escape the grasp of the LRA. Approximately 80,000 people participated in the event in 130 cities. Another film launching their Kony 2012 campaign was presented on Youtube and went viral with 120 million views in its first week. Teens and college students across the U.S. were encouraged to contact 20 culture makers and 12 policy makers to promote their cause and stimulate action in congress. They also sold Ugandan made merchandise and tool kits to raise funds. If awareness is what they were after, then the campaign is still considered to be one of the most successful outreach initiatives emerging on the internet.

The weakness in their social-media and film based strategy is that they needed to capture their young audience’s attention in a short amount of time and give them a call to action. The problem with this is that they took a complex subject and over simplified the complexities that surrounded it. There was quite a backlash from human rights activists who pointed out that issues involving guerrilla warfare, governmental systemic corruptions, and lack of border security in the invaded countries were not being presented. Some even believed that their social media strategy created “slacktivists” who are not actually contributing to the cause and are instead just spreading the word without researching the topic first. They pointed out that only 30% of their profits directly impacted the Ugandan children and the rest was used for films, travel  and salaries. Jason Russell, a co-founder of Invisible Children, stated they are an advocacy group not an aid organization. However there was still criticism over their lack of work with humanitarian groups in Africa and unlike other social media activism arising out of Egypt, Sudan, and Libya in this case it was middle class America speaking for Africans that created some animosity. Suggesting they were out of touch, some brought up the fact that the LRA was down to a few hundred soldiers and had migrated to other surrounding countries like South Sudan, Darfur, and Republic of Congo where they only had some flare ups. As well as stating they needed to make Kony famous because of his supposed anonymity however the LRA had been terrorizing villages in Africa since 1987. There was an arrest warrant issued to him and other LRA leaders by the International Criminal Court in 2005 and the U.S. began cooperating with the Ugandan government for Joseph Kony’s arrest in 2008. Finally in 2010 President Obama sent 100 military advisors to train African forces in the affected area. So to say that he was unknown was overstated. Yet another question was once Kony is arrested what is their next course of action?

The internet has the power to showcase good as much as it does bad and with all the adverse reactions came a mental breakdown suffered by Jason Russell as a result (the infamous TMZ video). It further served to diminish their credibility but it did not take away the fact that their organization stood for a good cause however wavering it was. They were able to take the criticism and turn it on its head by forming allegiances with African humanitarian groups, passing bills in congress, creating rehabilitation centers for displaced families, and radio networks to alert citizens of LRA activity. Their goal to disseminate the LRA is quite a heavy feat which they continue to strive towards even as their income has decreased and a once passionate popularity has died down some. They since have launched the Fourth Estate Summit, a world-wide human rights activism conference. Looking ahead they are rebranding, restructuring, and branching out into campaign consulting.

Their Facebook page with 3,312,347 likes and Twitter (where #stopkony emerged) with 263,000 followers are linked to one another. Not very active on Google+, with their last post being from June 27, 2014. Their Vimeo channel with 4,252 followers and Youtube channel with 255,753 subscribers has videos uploaded 2-3 times per month promoting their new endeavors. They even have a Pinterest page! Their content seems to be fairly uniform and consistent with their appeal to youth by posting inspirational quotes and even pop culture references like the one on FB about the Mockingjay: Part 1 premiere. They draw people in with stylized images and the feeling of activist rebellion, like their new tagline indicates: “jump first, fear later”. They also have a website where they explain the cause, what they are doing to accomplish their mission, and what you can do to help.

From what it looks like on their website their team is comprised of what they call an “advisory council” whom I imagine maintains their operations on social media. From a public relations standpoint it seems that they have done a good job of recovering from the negative reactions and received it as constructive criticism. They should highlight the work that is being done in African countries where they are working with grassroots organizations to attempt to reconstruct lives of those displaced people. On their website they acknowledge the complexities and try to give context however I think they need to have a very clear mission statement so that their goals are not lost in the many sub-pages of their sleek web design.

– Lauren Gutierrez


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