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The invisible lesson of Invisible Children

"Scouting for Kony" mockup book cover IRIN/Paul Currion

Amid the barrage of depressing news that accompanied the start of 2015, you may have missed the announcement late last year that the activist NGO Invisible Children is winding down. Maybe you barely remember Invisible Children now, but a few years ago, it was everywhere you turned on the internet. This was thanks to its infamous KONY 2012 film, which became the most viral video of all time, with a little help from retweets by well known experts in African politics such as Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga.

KONY 2012 highlighted the atrocities committed by Joseph Kony’s Lords Resistance Army (LRA) and focused international attention on one simple narrative: Get Joseph Kony! This worried traditional humanitarian organisations because it exposed how much better than us Invisible Children was at shaping media discourse (and staging musical numbers). It was a campaign so compelling that even the Ugandan rebel leader himself might have been tempted to send off for an Action Pack, if only to bring an end to those musical numbers. Invisible Children was accused of oversimplifying the situation in Uganda, as well as vastly exaggerating its own impact. So you may not be completely surprised that its closure announcement was accompanied by predictably grandiose and completely unsubstantiated claims about its achievements. This was one reason why so many took an instant dislike to the group: its attitude recalled some of the worst aspects of humanitarian fundraising, with Teju Cole dubbing it the White Saviour Industrial Complex.

While it may have been terminally confused about what it was doing, in one very important way Invisible Children was ahead of the game. Its digital-first media strategy reached a target audience previously considered politically apathetic: “predominantly young, privileged, evangelical Christian, female Americans.” For this demographic, the real Joseph Kony wasn't that important: this was Kony as Lord Voldemort, J.K Rowling’s evil antagonist, with Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell’s son standing in for Harry Potter.


No, the most important person in Invisible Children's narrative, driven by social media, was not Kony, and not even Invisible Children, but you, the reader. This is why Invisible Children couldn't fail. Not because it didn't fail – it failed in the most important sense, since we have clearly not captured Joseph Kony, and its resource base subsequently collapsed – but because it could never admit that it had failed. To admit to failure would be to destroy the narrative that you – yes, you, small-town teenager in the American Mid-West – are changing the world.

That narrative was more important than anything, which explains the spirited defence that Invisible Children's believers presented. Its critics weren't just attacking the campaign, they were attacking the campaigners themselves. You'd have to be spectacularly cruel to destroy the hopes of a generation, but reality is often both spectacular and cruel. In the end, it was the gap between the narrative and reality that led directly to Russell's tragic breakdown.

Before KONY 2012, Jason Russell says, "I was under the impression that I could will people's opinions to the truth and to what was right. I thought if we did a good enough job, said the right thing, made the right video, did the right interview, people would understand the truth."

And was it a hard lesson to learn that the world simply doesn't work like that? "It's what made me manic," he says simply.

Post KONY 2012, the aid industry agreed that we needed to learn how to use social media as effectively as Invisible Children, but with more integrity. We didn't learn that lesson, because if there's one thing the humanitarian sector is good at, it's not learning. Instead we learnt that going viral was the Holy Grail, and we've been trying to go viral ever since - at least until Ebola made the phrase “going viral” really, really inappropriate.

The limits to going viral are clear: Joseph Kony is still at large, and Invisible Children is shutting down. If branding was the only problem, then all the LRA would need is to restyle themselves as “My Little Kony: Friendship is Magic” and every brony in the world would be behind them. Yet even more responsible advocacy has its limits. Save the Children UK's “A Second a Day” video got a lot of hits (and deservedly so; it was excellent), but the money it raised was a drop in the ocean compared to the requirements of the UN-managed Syrian crisis response plans, which were barely over 50 percent funded in 2014.

This isn't an argument against using social media. As a sector, we need to get better at reaching out, but we're reaching out in the wrong way. We have these tremendous tools of communication and connection, but all we use them for is to spin the thinnest of stories, asking for more financial support for our own organisations – and the public has started to recognise and resent this.

The subtext of Invisible Children's narrative was simple: give us your support, and most importantly your money, and we'll take care of this. If that tactic sounds familiar, it's because it's the subtext of every single humanitarian fundraising appeal ever. Humanitarian organisations don't connect those affected by disasters with those who can help. They mediate between the two groups, and so contribute to keeping them separate.

The power structures that prevent vulnerable people from having access to resources are the same structures that prevent them from having access to communications – which has long been recognised as a vital resource itself. Humanitarian organisations need to ask themselves whether trying to hold on to their mediating role – the role that brings in the cash – fits with their wider ethic of social and economic justice.

Invisible Children held a mirror up to the aid industry, and we didn't like what we saw. That mirror's gone now, but that doesn't mean that we look any better.

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