Last Thursday, Invisible Children released their tepidly anticipated sequel to the stunningly viral video Kony 2012 (over 100 million views). The sequel, “Kony Part II – Beyond Famous,” was almost destined not to make as big a splash in the nonprofit/video/social-media ocean because the impact of the message had already been made, and those millions who responded − positively or negatively − probably don’t need to see a sequel to be re-convinced. Since the first video came out, just over a month ago, the ‘media packages’ people were asked to purchase to support the campaign were quickly sold out and the video’s director/narrator, Jason Russell, was arrested and committed to hospital for mental and emotional fatigue.
We still await the climactic ‘Cover The Night’ campaign of 20 April, but what all this has done to bring Kony to justice remains to be seen. What we want to focus on today, though, is how social networks inspired the explosion of interest around the original, and how those same networks might be dampening the responses to the sequel.
The sense many of us probably had a few weeks ago is that Invisible Children and their video “Kony 2012” came out of San Diego, yet came out of nowhere. What has become clearer to observers over the last number of days, though, is that Invisible Children (IC) has been developing a network of young followers who tend to be located in pockets of evangelical Christianity. Birmingham Alabama saw the first spike of interest in the original video, and from there Oklahoma City and Noblesville Indiana quickly followed suit. As Anthony Wing Kosner at Forbes.com noted, the video went viral ostensibly thanks to the interest of celebrities like Lady GaGa and Tim Tebow, but these communities of (predominantly and presumably) evangelicals have already been engaged with IC and got the ball rolling.
An even more sinister reading of the evangelical underpinnings of the organization and its ambitions in Uganda comes from the UK’s Guardian.com. Their news blog that ran to cover the release of the sequel last Thursday includes reports that:
It is unlikely that many Americans who watched Invisible Children’s record-smashing viral video hit KONY 2012 were aware of IC’s evangelical nature or of the nonprofit’s early financing from foundations that back the hard Christian right, including one of the biggest funders of the 2008 push for California’s anti-same sex marriage Proposition 8.
But Invisible Children, which has branded itself as welcoming cultural, religious, and sexual diversity, also enjoys extensive institutional and social ties to the global evangelical network known as The Fellowship (also known as “The Family”) – which has been credited with inspiring and providing “technical support” for Uganda’s internationally-denounced Anti Homosexuality Bill, also dubbed the “kill the gays” bill.
The jabs at IC’s evangelical-Christian roots seem unwarranted, at least in so far as religious groups have long been on the forefront of activism and networking. A quote from Russell from 2005 is making the rounds as a sign of his conspiratorial evangelical ambitions:
We are able to be the Trojan Horse in a sense, going into a secular realm and saying, guess what life is about orphans, and it’s about the widow. It’s about the oppressed. That’s God’s heart. And to sit in a public high school and tell them about that has been life-changing. Because they get so excited. And it’s not driven by guilt, it’s driven be an adventure and the adventure is God’s.
But I can’t see why ‘challenging the secular realm’ or working for orphans, widows, or the oppressed is cause for consternation. Religious groups and secular organizations have been working for these communities for decades (and in the case of religion, millennia). The challenge to their religious faith seems a weak one to worry about the effects IC or “Kony 2012.”
That said, neither Invisible Children’s website nor its video suggest any religious engagement. They certainly do not point out money or connections to The Fellowship but evidence of their association is mounting. This passage comes:
While the humanitarian nature of The Fellowship’s efforts is invariably stressed, individuals associated with the Fellowship (and with Invisible Children) are founding a fast-growing array of Uganda-based for-profit businesses, such as Apolis Global, that capitalize on The Fellowship’s privileged, high-level international political networks.
Among the current and past Invisible Children leaders and employees with professional and social ties to Fellowship members are Jason Russell, Laren Poole, Ben Keesey, Ben Thomson, Adam Finck, James A. Pearson, and Jared White – who in late 2009 went on a cross-Africa motorcycle trip with three young Americans who are working to develop The Fellowship’s programs in Uganda, including Eric Kreutter – son of Tim Kreutter, The Fellowship’s longtime American leader on the ground in Uganda.
All of which suggests − at the least − the organization uses social media as much to dissemble as it does to publicize. Which brings us to the video sequel:
Does it explain what Kony is up to and where he is? Yes − to the exact line drawn by many detractors of the original movie. Does it give voices to the Ugandans who want to stop Kony? Yes − those who already work for Invisible Children. Does it continue to inspire slacktivism? Time will tell − ten more days, to be exact.
Finally (for today), the entire phenomenon shows what can happen when a nonprofit presents a message but then quickly loses control of it. IC clearly was not prepared for the onslaught of interest or criticism it created. Its responses over the last few weeks have been ‘just enough’ to quell the latest criticism, and its specific message about Kony seems to be hiding a longer-term religio-cultural program (Difficult to imagine Lady GaGa supporting IC’s anti-gay and distinct business ambitions in Uganda if she were aware of them.). In a significant sense, every nonprofit dreams of such buzz around its story or its agenda. But if those nonprofits also have surreptitious plans, the very buzz of social media and viral popularity might also out those plans.