Monday, March 12, 2012

The Communications Phenomenon of Kony 2012

Over the period of one week, Joseph Kony went from world-wide obscurity to household name. Kony, of course, is the Ugandan warlord who is responsible for the abductions of thousands of African children and forcing them to become child soldiers. Invisible Children, the not-for-profit charity that seeks to put an end to the practices of groups which abuse children and force them to serve as solider slaves, is responsible for Kony's sudden infamy. They allege that Kony (and his Lord's Resistance Army) has done this more than 30,000 times. The allegations are shocking, horrific, and disturbing - and supported by UN research. In 2005, Kony was convicted of war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands but has since evaded capture.

This video, "Kony 2012",produced by Invisible Children and distributed on YouTube launched a campaign to make Kony famous and expose his war crimes. The video's purpose has worked. There are 85 million plus views on YouTube and Kony 2012 has been competing for top news story billings on National News programs. But why did this video go viral? Invisible Children has made 278 other videos (19 others are on YouTube) and they didn't catch on. All-star reporter Anderson Cooper has covered the Kony story for years - and it didn't stick. On top of all of that, Kony's story is not really time sensitive. After all, he's been doing this sort of thing for 26 years (according to the Kony 2012 video) and was convicted of war crimes almost 10 years ago.

A lot of bloggers and talking heads are trying to explain why this video went viral. Some are saying it got traction because Rihanna tweeted about it. Sure that helps, but I’ve also seen Tweets about celebs liking an Obama speech but those videos have only a few thousand views. Some bloggers have been talking about the high quality production of the video. Yep, that could help too but there are tons of high quality production videos out there that don’t catch on. Forbes posted a shopping list that seems to have assembled 12 of the most common arguments why the video caught on. To me, discussing the most successful viral campaign to date requires some deeper reflection. I’ll share my perspectives on why this video took off by asking three key questions: 1. Who is this video about? 2. What is the message of this video? 3. What kind of news do people tend to pass on?

Who is this video about? “Kony”, right? Actually, I’ll argue that’s not the right answer. The video is really about the viewer: How connected he is to the world; how empowered he is; how he is part of an experiment; how he needs to be aware what is happening to his brothers and sisters in other parts of the world; how he can help bring Kony to justice. Understanding this point lays the foundation for understanding the viral magic of the video: The video is personally relevant to you, the viewer.

What is the message of the video? I’ll bet if you asked a 100 people, you’d get a pretty consistent response: “Kony is a really bad guy and we need to stop him from being nasty to kids.” The message is so simple that even a child (like Gavin in the video) can understand – and communicate it. The message- supported by its simple visuals- is the essence of cognitive ease. In such a complicated world, here is a problem we can understand and tackle together.
Not only is the message simple to understand, it is simple to understand emotionally. What Kony is doing to kids makes me feel “sad" (see video 10:35) but the internet makes me feel empowered. And with the viewer understanding the argument intellectually and being emotionally energized to do something about it, the site leads him/her to a simple action: Click here because you are empowered to bring Kony to justice. This simple action reinforces the notion “I’ve done something good”- which further reinforces the viral aspect to the video (“I feel good for doing something good. I can get my friends to feel good and look good doing that good!” )

What kind of news do people tend to pass on? The Kony story contains very bad news and the information is very extreme. What is interesting here is that this is the opposite kind of news that people tend to pass along.

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence (as well as theory) to support the tendency for people pass on more central (rather than extreme) information. This is something called the centrality hypothesis. Simply put, the information-sharer does not want to look like a moron passing on information that might not seem plausible to the listener. In addition, the information-sharer tends to pass along positive information, rather than negative information. This is the "don't kill the messenger" effect. (Some research by Chip Heath explains these concepts really nicely.) These insights, help to explain why feel-good videos like “Charlie” tend to get passed around but do nothing to explain why Kony 2012 gets passed around. So why was Kony 2012 able to “go viral”? Here's an explanation. The information on Kony 2012 matches the emotional valence of the conversation topic and this makes the video safe to be shared. So even though the information is extreme (child mutilations/child soldiers) and negative (suffering, pain, bloodshed), it is passed on.

The viral success of the Kony 2012 video has hit the record books as being the fastest viral growth video on the internet to date. Congratulations to Invisible Children for such a well-executed campaign. To me, it is especially impressive because it overcomes the natural disadvantage of getting extreme negative information to spread.

While Invisible is tackling a very serious issue by informing people about child brutalities, there is also a much lighter lesson they are inadvertently providing by example: 3 things are crucial for viral spread:

1> The communication needs to be relevant for the audience.
2> The content ought to be designed for cognitive, emotive and action ease.
3> The tone of the content ought to be consistent with emotion of the conversation.

Invisible Children's execution of these 3 points helps explain the communications phenomenon of Kony 2012.


  1. Hey Bob. Good to bring attention to the topic. However, the Forbes article misses the point completely.
    We are talking about the world's #1 M%$?&? F&?%*$, on the UN list. It's not just maybe either, he's it. He's #1.
    The guys at kony2012 have done their homework, and 30 minutes convinces you that it might just work.

    Did I mention he's #1 ?

  2. After reading your Kony post, I checked out Forbes, Business Week (, Huffington Post and others on why it went viral. Your view is more realisitc if you ask me but then again you have a phd in this stuff and not them.