Ugandans watch the screening of Kony 2012, a 30-minute film by nonprofit campaign group Invisible Children, in Lira, north of Kampala, Uganda.
The viral Internet video “Kony 2012” mobilized an unprecedented number of young people to support the campaign to counter Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. It may also have mobilized an unprecedented number of lawmakers.
Since March 2012, when “Kony 2012” was uploaded to YouTube, lawmakers introduced five resolutions, spoke multiple times on the House and Senate floors and introduced their own YouTube video condemning Kony and his commanders.
It is one of the largest legislative responses to a video posted online and represents another milestone in the growing influence of the Internet in politics.
“It got a lot of things moving down here,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said of the video.
While it is difficult to link legislation directly to an Internet sensation, the surge in interest came after lawmakers were mostly quiet when President Barack Obama announced in October 2011 that he was sending about 100 military personnel to assist the Ugandan army in tracking Kony.
The announcement drew a single floor speech of support from Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a longtime advocate for action against Kony.
According to Steven Livingston, a media and public affairs professor at George Washington University, the release of “Kony 2012” altered the political dynamic in Congress.
“The viral nature of that video shows the emergence of a new point of leverage to move, at least symbolically, Congress in a way that the president was not able to,” he said.
He also noted that “Kony 2012” is representative of the new ways the public engages with its lawmakers.
“The online world is carving out an important role in framing the issues,” he said. “It is a less institutional-based phenomenon.”
Experts also point to the success of the “It Gets Better” campaign and the slew of anti-bullying legislation that followed its series of videos as a landmark Internet campaign. But “Kony 2012” is unique in how fast an issue largely unknown to the public pushed its way into Congress in a matter of days.
Shortly after the video’s release, McGovern said, “A whole bunch of our constituents started picking up the phone and sending emails saying, ‘You’ve got to do something.’”
McGovern said he first became involved with the campaign against Kony in 2008. He introduced a resolution reaffirming his support of the movement a week after the video’s release.
Democratic Reps. Steve Israel (N.Y.) and Frederica Wilson (Fla.) and Democratic Sens. Chris Coons (Del.) and Mary Landrieu (La.) introduced similar resolutions.
Kony had garnered 11 mentions in legislation before the video’s release, including a bill that made it U.S. policy to eliminate the threat posed by the LRA and authorized funds for humanitarian relief in the region. Invisible Children, the nonprofit group that created the video, lobbied for that bill and celebrated when Obama signed it into law in May 2010.
A Grain of Salt
Ben Keesey, executive director of Invisible Children, said inspiring legislation was not the motivation when his team was developing the video.
“I don’t think we ever explicitly had a stated goal for a legislative response,” he said. “The beautiful thing was a lot of people took it upon themselves to contact their lawmakers.”
Nonetheless, the popularity of the “Kony 2012” video is not without criticism. Invisible Children has run into trouble for its finances, and several groups blasted the video for oversimplifying the campaign against the LRA.
The problem with videos such as “Kony 2012” is “what the public pays attention to may not be all that real,” Livingston noted.
Micah Sifry, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who has written on technology and civic engagement, also was not convinced “Kony 2012” was particularly noteworthy.
“It is dime a dozen in online politics today,” he said. “Everyone is trying to draw attention using online video. The only new wrinkle here is the length.”
Coinciding with Invisible Children’s global day of action, a group of Senators released its own YouTube video earlier this month highlighting what the U.S. government is doing to counteract the LRA and praising “Kony 2012” for bringing the issue to light.
“Because so many Americans first learned about Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army online and because that’s where people are talking to each other about it, we wanted to engage with interested Americans there, too,” said Coons, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs.
Despite the Internet furor surrounding the video, Keesey said Invisible Children tries to stay focused on its work in Africa.
“I hesitate to say we are breaking new ground,” he said. “Congress was working on this before we were here.”