Kony2012: The Controversy (Part II)

Yesterday I critiqued the KONY2012 video from a Communication perspective to show you one of the reasons why it has become the most viral video in history thus far (yes, it’s even more popular than Susan Boyle). I did some math, and my daily web traffic went up 57% yesterday when compared to Monday. This exemplifies the strong saliency of the Kony2012 topic right now; people are interested in it and can’t seem to get enough! The post yesterday was actually a lot longer because I originally included a section about all of the controversy that has surrounded the video. Since not all of us are as skilled as Invisible Children at getting thirty minutes of continuous attention from the online audience (you), I decided to break that section off and make it into a separate entry today.


As is predictable in our increasingly polarized world, two main camps seem to have formed in response to the video. The opponents have passionately criticized Invisible Children for only spending 31% of the money they get on actual efforts on the ground in Africa, for commercializing a conflict for financial gain and simplifying it to the point of insult, for making the African people look weak and defenseless to help themselves, for making it seem as if the LRA is still in Uganda although they have been out since 2006, for encouraging “slacktivism” (lazy activism via the Internet), and for many other reasons.

The supporters of the campaign have argued it is worthwhile and beneficial because most people did not even know who Kony was until a few days ago, because even if a small percentage of the “slacktivists” take action, it will be worth it (also see this), and because the ultimate aim is to help children, despite the intentions of the filmmaker. Furthermore, Invisible Children has released a new video answering all of the questions that have been raised over the past few days and has created a detailed web page with the same aim as well.

So is the Kony2012 campaign patronizing, deceiving, oversimplifying, white-priveldge filled, self-promoting, and irresponsible, or is it altruistic, engaging, inspirational, potent, timely, and intelligent?

Does it Really Matter, at This Point?

While I like to think of myself as fairly knowledgeable of world events, I know there are exponentially more things I do not know than there are things I know. Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was one of the many things I did not know about, until the Kony2012 campaign.

How do most of us know what we know about the world? There are two main sources of information for our knowledge of world events; personal experience and the mass media.

Personal experience is a big source of information because we will naturally seek out more information and be more aware of issues we have directly witnessed/experienced. For instance, I have been to Turkey the past three years, so I am somewhat aware of the ethnic and political tensions in Turkey, while most of my friends are not. For any student who studies abroad somewhere and for anyone who has traveled somewhere, you will have more knowledge of that region than most people who have not been there.

However, if we do not have personal experience related to other parts of the world, most of us will not voluntarily spend hours and hours in the library every evening researching the geopolitical history of every region on earth, and will not spend hours and hours on the Internet everyday voluntarily reading through the CIA World Factbook or Encyclopedia Britannica. So where do we get the information about the parts of the world we have no experience with?

The mass media.

The mass media (newspapers, news channels, the Internet, etc.) tell us what to think about on the global scale. They encourage us to look up certain topics and to be interested in certain topics. How many of you knew about the Taliban before September 11th, 2001? Unless you study history or a related field or have been to the area, I am guessing most of you had no idea who they were until they became a media topic after the attacks.

Communication scholars Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw introduced the Agenda Setting Theory in the 1970s, and stated that:

Here may lie the most important effect of mass communication, its ability to mentally order and organize our world for us. In short, the mass media may not be successful in telling us what to think, but they are stunningly successful in telling us what to think about. – 1977

The mass media are stunningly successful in telling us what to think about. Jason Russell and his colleagues are aware of this fact, and Mr. Russell went to college for film production, thus he knows a thing or two about how to make a persuasive video (see yesterday’s post for the video critique). It was their goal to create a video that would create a lot of online buzz, so that the traditional mass media would pick the story up.

And did they ever pick it up. Here, Jon Stewart makes fun of the mass media for how much they’ve been talking about Kony2012.

As a result of the video and the brilliant social media marketing campaign, millions and millions more people know who Kony and the LRA are. Many people, even the opponents of the video, have now done research on the topic that they would have NEVER done had it not been for the video. While some of the opponents’ arguments are actually legitimate, the fact that arguments even exist, the fact that this is even a topic, means that Invisible Children has succeeded in it’s campaign and that more people than ever before now have some idea of who Kony is (this blogger makes a similar argument).

This blog makes the argument that all of this knowledge and attention on Kony is bad because he has been largely defeated (the KONY2012 video does indeed exaggerate the current situation exponentially) and all of this attention will give him more power and infamy. That is a very pessimistic way of looking it.

The word is spreading in many ways. If you want to make your own Kony Cookies, click on this photo.

Call me an idealist, but I believe all this media attention, and the subsequent public attention on the LRA and Kony, will do more good than bad. Of course there will be some negative effects (anything this big will not be perfect), and of course the oversimplified nature of their description of the LRA and Kony will give some people misleading information. However, most people are not stupid and realize the video is simplified to make it easy to understand, and many will do their own research on the topic if they are really interested in it, and will thus help in their own way towards the ultimate goal of this campaign, to capture the most wanted man in the world, according to the International Criminal Court. The argument over whether or not the video was a good idea is getting gold; the video is a hit and as a result, we should start thinking about how to make the best of it, instead of debating about whether or not it should have been made in the first place.

What About The Money?

Invisible Children is honest about how much money it does, and does not, spend on the ground in Africa (see above link), so I don’t see why people are making a big issue of their expenditures. The fact that they spend a lot of money on video production and travel (to raise awareness) is not hidden or in any way misleading; they are honest about it and about their intentions of being an awareness and advocacy group, and not necessarily a group that does much work on the ground in Central Africa. For those who do not like how this organization spends their money, DO NOT give them your money, and let other people make that decision for themselves.

How KONY2012 Persuaded You (Part I)

If you haven’t seen the Kony2012 video yet, I recommend you check it out by clicking here. It is the most viral video in history with over 110 million total views on the Internet in seven days. These days, anything that gets the attention of so many people inevitably turns into a controversy, and this video is no different.

Today I discuss the aims of the video and then describe, from a Communication concept perspective, why it has been such a viral hit. Tomorrow, I will address the controversy regarding the intentions of the organization which created this campaign.

What is it All About?

The Kony2012 video was created by American nonprofit organization Invisible Children, and it’s aim is to create awareness of Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) he leads. Kony considers himself to be a spokesperson of God, and the LRA is a Christian militia (it was previously known at the Holy Spirit Movement), which aims to resist the rule of the Ugandan government, to give the Acholi people of Northern Uganda a voice they have not had for decades, and to create a theocracy in Uganda based on the Ten Commandments (note some observers have said their ideology is unclear). This war in Uganda and the surrounding region has been waged for 26 years.

During their operations in Uganda, South Sudan, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the LRA has committed countless human rights violations, including enslaving children and using them as sex slaves and as child soldiers because the group ran out of volunteers. The United States assisted Uganda militarily in 2009 in their fight against the LRA and again provided assistance when President Obama sent one hundred “military advisers” to the area last October.

The goal of the Kony2012 video is for American youth to become aware of the LRA and of Kony, to pressure cultural and political leaders into speaking out about the issue, and to speak out themselves to pressure the US government to keep their advisers there, so that they can help to capture Kony and presumably, defeat the LRA.

Why is the Video Such a Hit?

Why has this video become such a huge viral hit, when there are many similar issues in the world and many videos online advocating for those issues a well?

Many have written about why it has been so successful (see here, here, and here, for a start), but I have yet to see a critique of it’s success based on a persuasive technique that I saw being employed in the video. Good editing is not the only reason people become emotionally attached to documentaries; there must be a good story and persuasive strategy behind them as well. Which group of people are experts at combining good stories and good editing to sell the audience ideas?


As this blogger suggests, the Kony2012 campaign is a genius example of an excellent grassroots marketing campaign. In the Communication discipline, we study the persuasive techniques involved in marketing and why they are successful. One of the most widely incorporated persuasive techniques is Monroe’s Motivated Sequence, which I briefly discussed here. The sequence has five basic steps that, if followed in order and done well, are supposed to be a foolproof technique to motivate an audience. The five steps are (in this order) to gain audience attention, establish a need, provide satisfaction, show a visualization of that satisfaction, and finally, to provide a call to action.

I have watched the KONY2012 video three times, and (whether the creators planned this or not), have noticed that it definitely uses Monroe’s Motivated Sequence. This sequence has been used  for decades because it works in persuading audiences, and it is one of the main reasons this video succeeds in getting an emotional response from it’s target audience. To show you this, I took screenshots depicting the different stages of Monroe’s Sequence as they were incorporated into the video. Another highly persuasive aspect of this video that I have not seen widely discussed is the use of music. It contributes a lot, especially because they used music that is popular to some young adults today, yet still dramatic enough for the video; such as Mumford & Sons and Nine Inch Nails. I encourage you to play the song below (which was used in the video) as you look at the screenshots, to get the full effect (if you get an advertisement from YouTube, sorry!)




1. Gain Attention

The voiceover begins by telling us that right now, there are more people on Facebook than there were in the world two hundred years ago, and the last line of the introduction proclaims:

The next twenty-seven minutes are an experiment, but in order for it to work, you have to pay attention.

By showing the spectacular images, the images of social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, including the dramatic music, and ending with the countdown clock and the teaser (what’s the experiment?), the introduction effectively gains our attention and pretty much guarantees that most young adults will not stop watching.




2. Establish Need

In this case, the producers spend a lot of time establishing the need. First, we are shown that the narrator (and presumed hero of the video) has a cute child, and this actually helps to establish his credibility, because we are more likely to trust a parent. This is why politicians love babies. Then we are shown another child, Jacob, who is Ugandan and who cries because of the devastation he has seen and because his brother was presumably killed by the LRA. Our hero (Mr. Jason Russell) promises Jacob that he will stop the LRA, and then tells his cute little boy, Gavin, about the evil Kony, and shows us the huge need for action that exists because of all of the horrible things Kony has done (he’s pretty much Hitler, as implied in the video).




3. Provide Satisfaction 

After grabbing our attention and establishing a need by showing us all of the terrible things that Kony has done to the kids in central Africa, the video provides us with satisfaction by showing us what can be done to solve the problem, or the “need”. The main suggestion here is that a united voice of concerned citizens working together (online and offline) should pressure the government to keep the American military advisers in the region, so they can help to capture Kony.  The narrator continues:

In order for Kony to be arrested this year, the Ugandan military has to find him, in order to find him, they need the technology and training to track him in the vast jungle. That’s where the American advisers come in. But in order for the American advisers to be there, the US government has to deploy them. They’ve done that, but if the government doesn’t believe the people care about arresting Kony, the mission will be canceled. In order for the people to care, they have to know. And they will only know if Kony’s name is everywhere.




4. Visualize Solution

The solution is visualized in two very quick but powerful shots. First, a hypothetical front page of the New York Times discussing the capture of Kony and second, a (fake) family being reunited with their son.




5. Call to Action

The final step of Monroe’s Sequence, the call to action, is probably the most blatant one, because the narrator tells the audience, “We know what we have to do, here it is..” and then the video presents the above sequence. The audience is encouraged to “make Kony famous” by signing up for an action kit and using the materials in it to make Kony famous. Furthermore, the audience is encouraged to contact celebrities and politicians and to tell them they support the fight against Kony. Technology is mentioned again; the supporters are encouraged to tweet at the celebrities and politicians, and they are told they can take a photo of their Kony posters with cell phones and tag it onto the Internet. The narrator proudly proclaims:

Arresting Joesph Kony will prove that the world we live in has new rules, that the technology that has brought our planet together is allowing us to respond to the problems of our friends.

At this point of the video, many young adults will have been persuaded to support the campaign because of the catchy music, the inspirational narration, the incorporation of technology they can relate to, and the individual stories of the children and the hero, Mr. Russell.

The creators of this video, just like creators of infomercials, knew most people would already be sold on the idea by the end of the video, and they also knew that sharing content on the Internet is second nature to young adults. Thus, the last call to action explicitly calls for the audience to share the video with their friends.

The obvious use of Monroe’s Motivated Sequence to create an emotional appeal, combined with the extremely simple call to action at the very end (share this with your social networks!), the excellent editing, and the brilliant use of music are the reasons this video has become the most viral video in history.

Funny Facebook Video

Starting this week, Friday will be the time for a “fun” post, which relates to the weekly theme. On Monday I wrote about the tendency for some university students to manage their Facebook (FB) identities by working hard to make it look as if they drink a lot of alcohol, because being a drinker is thought to be socially desirable. On Wednesday, I delved into the Communication concept of Identity Management and explained what it meant, because I discussed it during Monday’s post.

If your spring break was this week, I am sorry that it is ending, but I hope that the below FB parody video gives you some laughs, while also making you think seriously about this week’s theme again. If your spring break is just beginning, congratulations! I encourage you to read through all the posts so that you learn what you should not do on FB during your spring break, and during the rest of your college career as well.

Happy Friday, and enjoy the video! Next week, I will be writing about the Kony YouTube campaign.

All The World’s a Stage: Identity Management

Monday I wrote about spring break, consumption of alcohol among some university students, and Facebook (FB); I discussed how a good number of university students seem to purposefully construct their identity on FB in a way that makes them look like they drink a lot of alcohol. According to the research I cited in Monday’s post, they do this because they think presenting themselves as big drinkers is socially desirable.

One big Communication concept discussed on Monday was identity management on FB, and today I elaborate a bit more on this specific concept and some related concepts.


Identity Management Theory (IMT) was first described by professors William Cupach and the late Todd Imahori in the early 1990s when they used it to describe how people from different cultures communicate with each other; they based their interpretations on the “self-presenting” work of sociologist Erving Goffman during the the 1960s.

Lee (2008), in summarizing the IMT findings of Cupach and Imahori, states that they “argued that one’s identity  can be revealed and recognized through face, an individuals presented social identity” and that “positive face” deals with an individuals desire to be approved by others whereas “negative face” describes our needs to be free and independent from the influence of others (p. 54). This is an intercultural communication theory because the assumption was that people from different cultures would not be aware of what specific items the opposite culture perceived as “positive” or “negative” representations of face. On this note, Lee states, “during an intercultural encounter, interactants could threaten the other’s face due to a lack of knowledge concerning the other’s cultural rules and differences within cultural identity” (p. 54).

While Monday’s post was not about communication between two different cultures, the need for many university students to present a “positive face” to their peers via FB by making it look as if they drank a lot of alcohol definitely aligns with the above theory. As human beings, we are always “performing” certain identities to certain people because we wish to present ourselves positively to them; this might just be the reason Shakespeare said “All the world’s a stage” so many years ago. University students have a belief that being an alcohol drinker is socially desirable, so they manage their FB identities in such a way to make it appear as if they drink all the time.

Other theories that relate to this concept are Impression Management Theory and Face Negotiation Theory.

We all perform our identities to different audiences throughout the day.

These theories all explain, describe, and predict our efforts to “manage” how people we interact with on a daily basis perceive us, and by doing so, we are essentially “managing” the identity we want that person to attach to us. We do this by controlling what we say, how we say it, who we say it to, what we wear, how we wear it, the tone in our voices, the FB profile picture we choose, our voicemail message, our ringtone, and a plethora of other factors.

Since we want different people in our lives to perceive us differently, we present different “faces” to different people. You most likely act very differently in front of your professors than you do in front of the person you are dating, for example, because you want your professor to think of you in one way and your romantic partner to think of you in another way. In the same way, you might be more willing to reveal your vulnerabilities to people who are close to you, while you may always present a strong assured self to people who might look up to you as a role model (if you are a teacher, parent, or a leader in an organization, for example).

There is nothing essentially wrong with presenting different faces to different people, as long as they are authentic. We are all complex individuals with several different identities, which change a bit based on who we interact with. Being aware of this fact will hopefully help you think about all the different faces your present, and might make you aware of which faces are more authentic to who you are and which are just influenced by what you think other people want to see (peer pressure).

Note: I link to the Wikipedia entries for the above theories only to give you an idea of what they are, not to encourage you to use that as a primary source (see my Wikipedia philosophy here).

Alcohol, Spring Break, and Facebook:

What Could Possibly Go Wrong? 

I consider myself a professional college student (in year six and counting) and feel comfortable addressing some reoccurring patters.

One such pattern inevitably comes every spring semester during the event usually referred to by students with some sort of acronym, such as “sb2k10Panama”, and some sort of phrase, such as “What happens in Cancun, stays in Cancun!”

Yes, I’m talking about Spring Break.

Northern Kentucky University is currently on spring break (I’m writing this from Hawaii), and your university might be on break this week as well or will be soon.

While spring break is an excellent time for students (and their teachers!) to relax and take a breather from school for a bit, there is a more negative pattern associated with the week for those students who consume mass amounts of alcohol while simultaneously thinking it’s a good idea to share their booze consumption statistics with the world via the Internet. While these students may not realize right now why sharing such information online is bad, they will later.

So what’s going on here? This week’s focus is on the apparent romanticization of alcohol consumption on Facebook (FB) among college students.

I’m assuming a good number of college students will see people in their FB network posting about alcohol in a positive light over spring break and that, perhaps, they also will or have already done so as well. While posting about alcohol in a positive light is not necessarily bad or damaging, it becomes potentially bad and damaging if students post about activities related to mass consumption of alcohol and binge drinking (i.e. keggers and wet t-shirt contests).

When students post something on FB, they are literally giving information to a massive company that can share it with anyone. Facebook is free, which means the company has little obligation to the millions of students who use it because those students do not pay for their service; and this means the student information could at some point in the future be shared without consent.

Of course, most students are not stupid, and posting about alcohol is not as bad a problem as the media might make it out to be, but even one “in-the moment” FB status such as “Shots! Shots! Cancun! SB12! Margaritaville!” might come back to haunt a student in the future. As you will see below, it might also contribute to an existing trend that makes binge drinking look normal on FB.

So why do so many college students feel an urge to post about their mass consumption of alcohol on FB when this could come back and hurt their credibility in the future?

                                                  The Short Answer: 

Because social networking websites (SNS) such as FB allow them to manage their online identities very easily, and having an identity associated with drinking seems to be socially desirable among the college crowd. They want to be accepted, and they know their peers see drinking as cool and “grown up”, so they manage their FB identities accordingly.

                                       The Long Answer (The Research):

An Australian study by Ridout, Campbell, and Ellis that was published in January 2012 asked a similar question, and I believe their results can speak for American students as well because the two cultures actually seem to have a lot in common based on my experience (I’ve visited Sydney).

Ridout et al. had about 160 university students participate in their study and found that 96.4% of them reported consuming alcohol in the past year (p. 24). They also found that these students purposefully managed their FB profiles in a way to make them appear as if they drank a lot of alcohol. The interesting part is most of the alcohol related content was not created by the students themselves, but by their FB friends.

For example, a FB friend might have tagged a student in a photo with alcohol. However, since the students have control of which photos remain tagged and 82% of them untag photos they don’t want to be associated with (p. 21), the fact that they left these photos with alcohol tagged represents “an implicit sanctioning of alcohol related identity placements” and supports the idea that these students used the FB material generated by their friends to construct identities of themselves that included “a strong self-as-drinker component (p. 24).

Don't be them. (facebookfired.blogspot.com)

Furthermore, this study found almost half of the students who were included “had utilized one alcohol-related photo as their profile image” and that some of them also joined groups such as “I’m not an alcoholic, I just like to drink!” and became fans of alcohol related FB pages such as “Stupid things you say and do when drunk”. Ridout et al., citing another study, add that

teenagers openly present themselves as ‘drunks’ on SNS, indicating they like to be thought of as at least capable of binge drinking behavior (p. 24).

They also found that males seemed to spend more time on trying to create an “alcohol identity” on FB, and this is consistent with another study published in the American Journal of Men’s Health. The study, described in this article, found that 85% of the sample male FB profiles contained at least one reference to alcohol and that males who posted about alcohol seemed to have more FB friends.

Ridout et al. conclude their study by echoing the sentiment that peer pressure seems to play a big role in why university students put so much effort into presenting themselves as professional drinkers on FB:

Identity formation is a multi-dimensional process, and the current results suggest that portraying oneself as a drinker on SNS is an important and socially desirable component for many university students, contributing to the normalization of binge drinking among young people (p. 25).

While it appears peer pressure is a big reason students feel like they need to present themselves as mass consumers of alcohol, it is not the only one. The personality type of the student might also have an impact on how much they post about their life on FB. Moore and McElroy (2012), citing Wehrli (2008), state that

individuals low in emotional stability tend to spend more time on social networking sites because they may try to make themselves look as attractive as possible (p. 269).

If they think attraction equates to drinking alcohol, they might make more of an effort to present themselves as drinkers on FB, in an effort to deal with their emotional instability.

If people react this way to your FB profile, you need to change some things. (NYdailynews.com)

Many Western college students might have a few days during their collegiate careers during which they experiment with how much alcohol they can consume before they pass out. If you do this, I urge you to give your car keys to a friend and to be safe. There is nothing essentially wrong with this (it would be silly of me to tell you to not do it because I know many people will), as long as you are not putting yourself and others in danger.

However, this becomes very dangerous when students use alcohol as a treatment for life anxieties and when they trick themselves into believing that drinking mass amounts of alcohol is the cool and normal thing to do. The only people who consistently binge drink are alcoholics, but because so many university students talk about it on FB and other online channels, it may seem as if many students binge drink all the time as well.

An addiction to alcohol can easily develop during the college years if students do not learn how to drink responsibly, so it is essential for us to fight against the culture of romanticizing binge drinking as the “cool” and normal thing to do by constantly referring to it positively over the Internet. Furthermore, if you do not share your drinking activities online, the chances that your future employers will find out about it and consequently get a very bad impression of you will be much, much, less.

Alcohol and spring break seems to be a part of the American collegiate experience for many, but I urge you to take FB and other SNS out of that equation so that you do not contribute to the romanticization of binge drinking as “cool” and “normal”  and so that you can get a job in the future!