Kony 2012: the crowd to the rescue?

March 28th, 2012 by

microtask_kony2012Unless you’re a solitary hermit with no Facebook friends, you’ll have seen the Kony 2012 film, which racked up an astonishing 70m hits in its first week. You may also have heard the criticisms of Invisible Children, the charity behind the film, and read the charity’s response to its critics.

Leaving aside these issues, the nature of the campaign and its enormous viral success are clearly very interesting from a crowdsourcing perspective. Obviously the organizers have done a lot of things right. But is getting the crowd to spend $30 (plus shipping and handling) on posters of Kony actually the best way to achieve the film’s goal of ‘changing the course of human history?’ Could the crowd be used more effectively?

Wanted, dead or alive

For all the success of the Kony 2012 campaign, a cynical crowdsourcing evangelist (not me) might point out that Kony 2012 is really more a large-scale awareness campaign than a truly innovative use of the crowd.

The campaign’s main purpose is to make Kony, and his terrible crimes, famous. It does this with a slick video, and by distributing posters and bracelets. But with the campaign’s aims decided in advance by a central authority, there’s not much for the crowd to get their collective teeth into.

This lack of meaningful engagement is exacerbated by the campaign’s focus on (primarily) US Facebook users, rather than those people more directly involved in the conflict. Uganda currently has 387,000 Facebook users, with the number growing by over 10,000 per month. Though this only represents just over 1% of the population, Uganda’s online community presents an incredible opportunity for charities to engage with the issues.

A more inclusive campaign may have avoided some of the controversy surrounding the video, which has been accused of ignoring African perspectives and advocating a US intervention which has already been implemented.

Let the crowd get to work

This single minded focus and pre-determined goal is probably part of the reason Kony 2012 has achieved such phenomenal exposure so quickly. But it also exposes the campaign to potentially damaging criticism which can undermine even the best of intentions. So what could charities learn from the crowdsourcing revolution?

As Google’s Against Violent Extremism project shows, crowd-based activism can work extremely well when it’s based around a free exchange of information and ideas. Against Violent Extremism provides a space for people on all sides of the problem to come together, debate the issues and formulate solutions. No central authority dictates the goals or methods, and many projects can come together under the same banner. By including everybody in the conversation and working together, there’s more to online activism than just clicking ‘like’.

Despite the campaign’s arguable shortcomings, Invisible Children’s empathy and enthusiasm have brought the issue of child soldiers to the centre of the global conversation. If nothing else, the Kony 2012 campaign sends a message to other despots that the world cares about their crimes. If it leads to the arrest or death of Kony, the campaign will not only change this region of Africa, but the world. Hopefully their next campaign will avoid controversy by letting the crowd work their magic, and be even bigger.