Kony 2012: Catching Warlords with the Stars
Kony2012 rose and fell on the power of celebrity. “We want to make Kony famous”, Invisible Children proclaimed, and it did, enlisting the support of twenty “culture-makers” to spread the word that an African child-killer was still at large. Kony2012 is often touted as an example of how ordinary people can use the internet to influence political institutions, but what it really proved was the durability of entrenched media hierarchies. This was not a social media revolution. This was the Biebs leading the blind.
The rationale behind Kony2012’s selection of celebrities like Justin Bieber, Oprah Winfrey, Rick Warren and Rush Limbaugh to promote their cause was as clear as its donkey-elephant logo: Kony2012 was by Americans and for Americans, a salve for our partisan psychic wounds. If A-listers this diverse can come together, then anything is possible. The video molded the American vision of justice with the American fantasy of fame, making a complex conflict seem easy to resolve. Like celebrity, retribution comes if you dare to dream big. And so was born a new national pastime: catching warlords with the stars.
According to YouTube, most of the initial viewers of Kony2012 were 13-17 years old. Kony2012 drew this audience, too young to even vote, by enlarging its sense of civic possibility – you can help catch Kony, it proclaimed, and here is how you do it. The film’s Hollywood production values and emotional narrative are credited for its appeal, but just as central were its celebrity interlocutors. Would Kony2012 have gone viral without Ryan Seacrest and Rihanna? Would it have crossed the one million mark without that pivotal Oprah tweet?
Kony2012 relied on symbols of implausible success to make its own success possible. The artificial connection between the cause and its celebrity champions mirrored the simulated intimacy between celebrities and their followers. You keep up with the Kardashians, Kim keeps up with Kony, and now you, too, are part of the campaign. This is not to say that the public embrace of the video was not sincere. But its popularity was perhaps less of a grassroots phenomenon than portrayed.
Lost in the Kony narrative is the role of law. In the video, legal and political institutions are minimized, shown as either indifferent and ineffective or bafflingly susceptible to popular culture. The prosecution of war crimes becomes a popularity contest fought on Twitter. It is notable that two of the most prominent Kony2012 aficionados – Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber – are products of internet fame, proof that all that you need to succeed is more public “awareness”. Kony2012 argues that a criminal cannot be caught unless everyone cares about the crime. The court of public opinion is the only one that matters. Joseph Kony was to be brought down by fame, like so many tabloid stars before him. And so hordes of teenagers donned Kony T-shirts and posters and pins, to the horror of Ugandans who endured his brutality.
In the end, it was not Joseph Kony who was crushed by his own celebrity. It was Kony2012 star Jason Russell, who was arrested for public nudity and causing a disturbance one week after the video’s release. His breakdown was captured on camera and watched millions of times on YouTube. As of now it has received more hits than the Kony2012 sequel, which was created to counter criticism of the campaign. It is hard not to feel sorry for Russell, who fell victim to the spotlight he created. But it is notable that his humiliation, more than the critiques of the video by experts on African conflict, is what tarnished Kony2012’s appeal.
Celebrity vigilante justice runs on the politics of perception. For now, it looks like the public deems the capture of Joseph Kony too uncool to pursue. April 20 seems unlikely to live up to Invisible Children’s expectations. But who knows? As they say in Hollywood, everyone loves a comeback.