KONY 2012 video whips up social media firestorm

Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and other social powerhouses spread the word and create viral pheno

A 30-minute video about an African warlord and his army blasted its way onto the Internet this week, lighting up social networks like Facebook and Twitter and becoming a YouTube phenomenon.

The controversial video, dubbed KONY 2012, has racked up nearly 57 million viewings on YouTube since it was first uploaded on March 5. More than 1 million people have "liked" the video, and about 50,000 have "disliked" it.

The spread of the video about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, the leader of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army, is all about the power of social networking, analysts say.

"Social networks are incredibly powerful and carry a lot of weight in forming public opinion," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group.

"Children being pressed into battle, forced to fight a brutal guerilla war is something that everyone in the civilized world is obviously against. But portray that story in a compelling way on YouTube and publicize it via social media and you have a worldwide firestorm of interest," Olds added.

The video shines a light on alleged atrocities, including the murder of Ugandan citizens and the forcing of children into slavery or the military, by Kony and his army over 20 years or more.

The KONY 2012 video was created by Invisible Children, a San Diego-based nonprofit group.

Soon after the video was posted on Monday, there was a surge of people sharing it with friends and followers on sites like Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

And then some big social guns weighed in.

Media mogul and television host Oprah Winfrey, who has more than 9.6 million Twitter followers, posted tweets about the video and the cause several times this week. "How many times do you need to see children slaughtered to believe it's real? #STOPKONY," Winfrey tweeted.

Microsoft co-founder and global philanthropist Bill Gates jumped into the conversation, tweeting, "Good to see such strong interest in #stopkony - a key step to helping those most vulnerable," to his more than 5,600,000 followers.

Others, like Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and TV personality Ryan Seacrest also got word out to their followers and stirred up interest in the plight of the Ugandans.

The efforts bore fruit quickly.

On Tuesday, the video producer's posted on the Invisible Children's Facebook page, "You guys are making Kony famous, and you're breaking the internet."

Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children, said in an interview on MSNBC that the organization had to close its online store because they were out of merchandise.

However, the spotlight of social media attention also led to a fair amount of criticism for the video as well as the filmmakers.

And that, says Olds, is a risk that anyone takes when they look to social media to get the word out about a cause or business.

"Like any tool, social media can be used in many ways," he added.

"For example, while the Kony video has focused worldwide attention on the atrocities, the social netizens are also taking a close look at the charity behind the video. No one is denying that Kony isn't the bad guy here, but questions are being raised about whether this video is the best way to rid the world of him. According to some, this noise and attention will actually hinder efforts to take Kony out."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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