"I Feel Like Kony Won"
"The End of Invisible Children”
That’s the headline BuzzFeed trumpeted in December of last year, seemingly declaring the end of the one of the stormiest social justice ventures in recent memory. By the mid 2000s, Invisible Children had become shorthand for a new kind of activism—one that mobilized the global community through social media, bridging the then-stark gap between online communities and real-life action with millennial-savvy, storytelling chops and unbridled sincerity.
But a funny thing happened on the way to being the voice of a justice-hungry generation. A lot of funny things, actually. In the last few years, Invisible Children has been a roller coaster, a journey fraught with teetering highs, falls and disorienting loops.
The BuzzFeed headline was a little sensational, as it turned out. This year, Invisible Children is closing down its headquarters, reducing its staff from 22 to just a handful of people working remotely. It will no longer produce the sort of viral content that made it famous—but it does not plan on closing. Not yet.
It’s one more fact jumble in an organization that has been dealing with them for over a decade; one more twist in which Invisible Children had to issue a handful of clarifying statements to whichever supporters and detractors will care to look past the headlines.
“I would say Invisible Children is not closing,” the organization’s co-founder, Jason Russell, says from his California home. “It is now focused on its mission statement, which is to dismantle the LRA [Lord’s Resistance Army] and bring as many women, children and combatants home.
“The hardest part is getting this end and getting people to stick with you till the end. And in order to do that, [former CEO] Ben Keesey and myself and a bunch of us on management staff decided to forfeit our jobs and hand the baton off to the four people who have proven they have the tenacity and expertise to get the job done.”
So Invisible Children is not closing, exactly, but they have entered a newer, lower-profile chapter—one that marks the organization’s twilight years as it seeks to hand over its key programs in Africa to local groups.
It’s an interesting switch, and for Russell, an admittedly difficult end. There was a time when it seemed Invisible Children had truly happened upon a viable recipe for changing the world—they created a sort of kickstarter (to borrow a term from a company they predated by half a decade) for making a difference. But with Russell leaving and the group’s fortunes changing, their prospects mirror the fading hopes of the generation they once whipped into an inspirational frenzy.
In a way, we’ve all had to learn together that changing the world is no picnic. And the question we’re left with is a simple, but haunting one: What now?
In the Beginning
Invisible Children started in 2004, but their story really begins in 2003, when Russell and two friends traveled to Uganda with only one aim: to find an interesting story and make an interesting movie out of it.
To say they were successful is like saying Alexander the Great had a healthy ego. They happened upon hundreds of Ugandan children—many of them orphans from the nation’s lengthy civil war—attempting to avoid being kidnapped and brainwashed into the LRA, a terrorist group run by the ruthless and enigmatic Joseph Kony.
They captured powerful footage of kids sleeping in mass huddles near hospitals and bus stops, hoping their numbers would deter attacks. They nabbed interviews with children who had seen friends and family members murdered in front of their eyes.
All of this was turned into Invisible Children: Rough Cut, a film they screened on college campuses all over America, galvanizing one of the first waves of millennial college students into steely resolve. It’s a time Russell looks back on fondly.
“There was something very nostalgic and magical,” he says of that first trip. “The trip was really hard on [fellow filmmakers] Laren and Bobby and I, when you look back on the details of how it rolled out and what had to happen in order for us to find this very hidden conflict. The U.N. at the time called it ‘the most forgotten, neglected humanitarian emergency in the world today.’ That’s what they called it the year we were there. That’s amazing.”
The movie spurred a few things. First of all, Invisible Children became an IRS-certified nonprofit, and then the nonprofit became a phenomenon.
In 2006, when Invisible Children organized a “global night commute” in 125 cities around the world, asking people to spend the night in parks and public places to raise awareness for Uganda’s child soldiers, over 80,000 volunteers responded. Three years later, at “The Rescue,” 85,000 people got involved, including senators, state representatives and Oprah. Invisible Children became a real movement.
And then came “Kony 2012.”
Making Invisible Children Famous
To get the full effect of the “Kony 2012” campaign, it’s important to remember the climate of 2012. The U.S. was in the middle of a bitter presidential campaign, her post-recession fortunes far from certain. The country was politically split, and millennial apathy was soaring (only about half of all millennials ended up voting in the election).
It was on to this scene that Invisible Children released “Kony 2012,” a 30-minute YouTube video that acted as a call to arms for volunteers to “make Joseph Kony famous.”
The idea was simple enough. The people with the power and means to stop Joseph Kony would only do so if there was a public demand. Raise the public demand, and you tighten the noose. The video, released on March 5, 2012, called for volunteers to participate in an April 20 campaign called “Cover the Night,” in which posters, stickers and “Kony 2012” memorabilia would be littered across the world—effectively turning Kony into the global community’s public enemy No. 1.
In one week, the video had reached 100 million views.
The metrics of online success are difficult to quantify, but Time magazine declared it to be the most viral video of all time, and that would be difficult to disprove. But perhaps even more impressive than the video’s viral success was its ability to inspire beyond the share button. “Kony 2012” got 1.4 million YouTube “likes,” but garnering 3.7 million pledges of support is the real eyebrow-raiser. Invisible Children’s influence extended offline.
“I know technology connects us, but in the end, we’re very, very social,” Russell theorizes. “Already, millennials are seeing the limitations social media brings. Yeah, we’re all connected and we feel cool about it and we love this tool. But more than anything, we want to see each other and be in a place that’s like the real human touch. And that’s what Invisible Children has constantly and consistently been about.”
At this point, it bears mentioning that Russell is saying all this the day after he officially left Invisible Children, the organization he started. He still refers to them as “we,” which will clearly be a tough habit to break. He’s immensely proud of his team’s work.
“I see the outpouring of the work of Invisible Children, what it’s been able to do, and I think that in some ways—and this might sound arrogant—we were ahead of our time. Usually, when people or organizations or ideas are ahead of their time, they’re very criticized at first.”
In Invisible Children’s case, that would be putting it mildly.
More Kony, More Problems
“Do I think they steered people in the right direction or gave them the right set of information they need to make good decisions? No.”
Dr. Chris Blattman is an associate professor at Columbia who worked on a tracking study in the mid ’00s on war-affected youth in Uganda. His wife spent years in Uganda as both a researcher and humanitarian aid worker. He first saw Invisible Children: Rough Cut while he was a Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley. At the time, he had only been to Northern Uganda once and was “by no means an expert.”
“I saw [the Invisible Children crew] around from time to time in Northern Uganda,” he recounts. “They’re kind of an inescapable presence. They were becoming very well-known, certainly.”
In a series of blogs posted in the aftermath of “Kony 2012,” Blattman took Invisible Children to task.
“Successful advocacy often tells a simple story,” he wrote. “Simple stories usually lead to simple solutions; and simple solutions can do more harm than help. If you want to help, your first duty is to make sure you don’t make things worse.”
As the blowback against “Kony 2012” gained steam, the core of the counter-narrative was generally some version of Blattman’s critique. Unlike many detractors, however, Blattman hedged his criticisms. Both in his writing at the time and today, he takes great pains to give Invisible Children its due credit.
“For all its weaknesses, Invisible Children has been more effective than any of us at raising awareness, and they may get us closest to the least worst action we can take,” he wrote. “They can get better, and I hope this time they do.”
He has a similar perspective today.
"I feel like Kony won. And everyone should sit with that. It is something to be grappled with. Kony is still winning." —Jason Russell
“There were things I really liked and there were things I didn’t,” he says of Invisible Children.
He notes that Russell and the other filmmakers carried a sense of humility in what they did and “they didn’t hide their naiveté … I liked that.”
“But I was critical of their sort of cavalier attitude and maybe some of the styles of advocacy they’re emblematic of. ‘We can go and save these kids!’ is a very useful device for getting people involved, but eventually, it’s kind of misleading, and it leads you to pick often very bad, inappropriate policies and approaches.”
The actual ground zero for the “Kony 2012” pushback began in another corner of the Internet, a blog titled “Visible Children.” A post there, published on March 8, was not nearly as moderate in its criticisms as Blattman’s posts were.
“Do I have a better answer? No, I don’t,” the post stated. “But that doesn’t mean that you should support ‘Kony 2012’ just because it’s something. Something isn’t always better than nothing. Sometimes it’s worse.”
That post was written by Grant Oyston—at the time, a sociology and political science student at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. His post gained 1.3 million views overnight, and he became something of an anti-Invisible Children figurehead in the ensuing months, much to his chagrin.
He considered himself then, as he does now, an aggregator of expert critiques. He’s articulate and deferential—the years seem to have cooled some of his early rancor—but he’s still unimpressed by Invisible Children.
“There were two main categories of criticisms that were being brought up regarding the video itself and the tone it used and the way it portrayed the history of the story it was telling,” Oyston says.
The first criticism had to do with the film—saying it failed to present an accurate picture of the situation in Uganda, what Oyston calls “misleading or ethically dubious storytelling devices.”
“People felt that it was oversimplified, it was somewhat patronizing. It had this narrative device of using a small child and telling it as a story of good vs. evil in a sort of simplified, direct way,” he says. “They were doing things like using footage that indicated the conflict was bigger than it currently was. They were using that kind of footage without identifying the date of the footage—which was maybe five or six years old when this conflict was substantially larger.”
The second accusation was about Invisible Children itself, and it’s a common criticism of nonprofit organizations: Oyston took issue with how Invisible Children handled donations.
“People felt that their money would be going to direct action, when in fact, a lot of what their budget is going to is what they describe as a program expense. Essentially, it’s awareness raising and lobbying. There was concern from some camps that what needed to be done was not lobbying as much as on-the-ground work supporting victims.”
Oyston points out that Invisible Children may have had good reason for being vague about what, exactly, people’s donations were funding.
“You were funding efforts to send people with guns into an African country, or funding efforts to lobby for America to send in advisers for the local-owned military and paramilitary groups to go in, guns blazing to kill someone,” he says. “It’s difficult to raise money for that.”
Reaping and Sowing
The pendulum swing back on “the most viral video” of all time put Invisible Children in the uncomfortable position of playing defense. The organization swiftly put together a response on their website (which quickly crashed owing to the sheer volume of traffic), a move even the group’s most adamant critics speak of highly.
Briefly put, Invisible Children didn’t back down—they were filmmakers and storytellers at heart, and any perceived oversimplification was only in the best interest of telling a coherent narrative.
“This work is so nuanced and so layered,” Russell says. “As a storyteller, your job is to quantify, like bring it all together and simply present it to a 14-year-old high school student.”
Russell is a kind person, too kind to speak very negatively of the many, many personal attacks he endured in those times. He’s more critical of himself than he is of them.
“You always say, ‘Gosh, why didn’t I try to sleep? Why didn’t I go away instead of putting a very weird and bizarre twist on what could have been much more successful, as far as getting the story out there?’”
In case you don’t know, that “weird and bizarre twist” was the low point of Invisible Children’s existence. On March 15, 2012—just when the backlash against “Kony 2012” reached its peak—Russell suffered a public breakdown. A video of it was released online. He’s naked. He’s slapping the pavement, screaming obscenities, shouting about the devil.
The Internet had a field day. TMZ released the footage with its trademark snarky carnival barker voiceover. Twitter went ballistic. Former celebrity allies distanced themselves.
Russell was placed on a psychiatric hold and shortly thereafter appeared, fully clothed and composed, to apologize. He said it was the result of a brutal cocktail of stress, exhaustion, dehydration and anger. He still says that.
“Every day that goes by and Kony is allowed to be free, it sends a clear message to the rest of the world that you can get away with murdering children, mutilating people’s faces, displacing—some count as many as 4 million people displaced from this man,” Russell says.
“He has no political power. He has no money. And yet he has somehow managed to outsmart and outlast the billions of dollars our world spends on military power and intelligence. When you think about that chasm, it should make you want to run naked in the streets.”
Even with Russell’s apologies and Invisible Children’s response, the blow was nearly fatal. A follow-up film, “Kony 2012 Part II: Beyond Famous,” ably responded to the first film’s critics, but received a fraction of the attention. The April 20 “Cover the Night” campaign suffered from abysmal turnout amid the swirling negative press.
"'We can go and save these kids!' is a very useful device for getting people involved, but eventually, it's kind of misleading." —Chris Blattman
Invisible Children has continued to work and raise awareness in the ensuing three years, but things were different.
“It was harder to book screenings,” Russell says. “It was harder to get people to fundraise and continue the work.”
At the end of 2014, they made the announcement that caused the BuzzFeed snafu.
“We thought there was the pendulum swinging to this really dramatic almost hyperbolic ending,” he explains. “And then we realized, ‘We don’t need to close. We don’t need the millions of dollars of funding to continue the work.’ The work we’re doing on the ground, if given the right amount of funding, can live on into 2015 and beyond.
“And so we had the difficult task of branding what has now been somewhat confusing—and I get the confusion—that Invisible Children is not closing. It’s just focusing, and it’s going to look different than it has in the past.”
A big part of that difference, of course, will be Russell’s lack of involvement.
“I always thought my final day would be around the day we capture or remove Kony from the battlefield. So it’s been challenging as a storyteller to wrap my head around the fact that this isn’t how the story’s going to end, or at least the story’s going to look different.”
This clearly pains him, and while he knows that his story is “messy,” he defends his intentions. He also seems baffled that anyone would want to stand in the way of a group so clearly bent on trying to make a difference.
“When polled in 2010 by Harris of the Harris Poll, they found that one out of four people believe they have a responsibility to make the world a better place by being involved in causes or issues,” he says. “That statistic shows us that three out of four people are actually on the sidelines. They don’t believe that they have the responsibility to make the world a better place. I think that really is the systemic core issue.”
According to Russell, that has serious implications far beyond the life or death of the organization he helped start.
“I feel like Kony won,” he says. “And everyone should sit with that. It is something to be grappled with. I mean, yes, we’ve made a lot of achievements. Out of the five commanders, three have been removed from the battlefield since 2012, and the defection and the 92 percent reduction in LRA violence since 2011—on that front, we should be proud.
“I shouldn’t be a Debbie Downer, but that should be a conviction that we all feel as the human species. Not just as an American. Everyone should feel the way that the No. 1 war criminal for war crimes and crimes against humanity is still free. Is still free. Kony is still winning.”
Jason Russell in the empty offices of Invisible Children
Did It Work?
Russell is right. Insofar as Invisible Children’s mission was to bring Joseph Kony to justice, it has not been successful.
But there are larger, less tangible aspects to the movement it started. And victory there is a bit more difficult to quantify.
Blattman poses an interesting thought experiment:
“Imagine you had some really well-meaning Japanese high school student who is really motivated by what he sees on the television about Ferguson. He shows up in Ferguson and he wants to help, he wants to make a difference. He doesn’t speak English, doesn’t have much money. What’s that person going to do other than get hurt or cause trouble? Nothing whatsoever.
“Now imagine this guy was a millionaire. Whatever this guy does is just going to be a disaster. How could it not be? You look at that and it’s obvious. Just try to put yourself on the other side of this. Now we’re the Japanese billionaires. We’re just as foreign. We’re just as clueless. We’re just as relatively wealthy.”
Blattman’s analogy echoes a familiar sentiment that began around the time of “Kony 2012” and has followed in the wake of every viral social justice campaign since. The big question is: Does it do any good?
Oyston’s response is “largely, no.”
"Anyone can change the world, but it's difficult. It's not going to be a simple, direct matter." —Grant Oyston
“Every time you see these viral things and everyone hopping on board, obviously it’s a hit to your own self-esteem. ‘I did something good today. I did something productive today. I poured some money into helping people save lives.’ It’s something people do because they want to feel a little bit better about themselves, that they’ve done something good for the day.”
And he says Invisible Children played into this mindset to their own detriment.
“Invisible Children tries to teach you that anyone can change the world and that it’s easy. You need to click, you need to give, you need to share and that’s the way forward,” Oyston says.
“I think my message is, anyone can change the world, but it’s difficult. If you’re serious about making a difference, it’s not going to be a simple, direct matter. There are problems in the world that have straightforward, direct answers, and we’ve fixed them. The problems that remain are complicated and difficult, and you can’t just sort of jump in and play a significant role in resolving them. If you want to do this, it’s a long-term commitment.”
Blattman is a bit more measured in his criticism. He understands the urge to make a difference—he has felt it himself. Who hasn’t?—he just thinks the enthusiasm needs to be channeled differently.
“I don’t think anyone will disagree that [Invisible Children] raised awareness,” he says. “That’s good. They were showing this movie in Congress, for goodness sake. I think it’s really important to say, ‘Is that enough?’ They exceeded any reasonable expectations, but the second and third time, after they’ve been doing this for years and years and years, it’s harder to say, ‘Yeah, that was good enough.’”
Blattman doesn’t doubt Invisible Children’s intentions. He’s not cynical about the intentions of their supporters and fans. He just questions whether they were fully prepared for the mission they set out for.
“I think it’s great when people feel this way,” he says. “I felt this way as a young person. The number one piece of advice I give to people is to basically go into it with humility. Understand that at least at first there’s very little you can do to help.
“In some sense, you have to understand what’s going on before you can be effective. Trying to make a commitment to a place or to a topic, a question or an issue and really investing in that is important.”