08 kony blog Kony 2012: Inaccuracies aside, this is how to spread a message

Even the foreign secretary has weighed in. “We are working hard to ensure Joseph Kony is brought to justice, LRA atrocities are ended and civilians protected,” he tweeted this morning. Why now? Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army abducted children and created havoc in northern Uganda for a quarter of a century. In recent years, his followers have dwindled in number and been pushed into the jungles of the Central African Republic. He is – thankfully – no longer the menace he once was.

But this week his name has been evoked in one of the slickest, cleverest bits of social marketing I have ever seen. The video “Kony 2012″ has gone viral, with more than 30 million YouTube and Vimeo views since Monday.

In it, the American campaigner Jason Russell tries to explain to his toddler son, Gavin, who Joseph Kony is, and why he must be stopped. It’s designed to appeal to young Americans who have never been to Africa and it has succeeded wildly. But not just with them. One of the Channel 4 News Deputy Editor’s children came down to breakfast today and asked him what we were doing about Kony on the programme tonight. Alastair Campbell’s daughter told him to watch it. The rapper P Diddy told his five million Twitter followers to watch. The daughter of Joel Kibazo, a former Financial Times journalist, told him he had to watch it – and he’s Ugandan.

The video provides a simple solution to a simple problem: catch the bad man who is kidnapping kids. Such is the influence of Russell’s “Invisible Children” campaign, last October President Obama sent a 100-strong force of US soldiers to work as advisers to the Ugandan army trying to find Kony. The message of the video is that they must not be withdrawn and they must catch Kony this year.

Which is fine, except there’s no indication that they were going to be withdrawn, nor any reason to believe they will be successful this year. And, given that Kony appears to have been contained, it’s not as if arresting or killing him would make a huge difference to the children of northern Uganda. The video is a not-very-subtle Google-era version of the white man’s burden: the answer to the problem, it says, is American intervention. The nice white man must save the poor black kids from the nasty black man.

Tonight Joel will tell his daughter that it’s a good thing she’s seen the video, and he’s happy that she’s getting interested in Uganda. But he’s worried. “I think this shows that you can collate information using the tools of modern technology and it will be picked up by 14-year-olds and you can change their perception.”

But none of the articles Joel or I or a hundred other journalists who have covered Uganda over 25 years has reached the people this video has reached. OK, it may not be accurate. It may use out-of-date figures. But it’s struck a chord we have never managed to strike. What wouldn’t we do for an audience of 30 million? The video has reached people who would never watch Channel 4 News, or read the Financial Times.

The “Invisible Children” campaign could learn a little from those of us who care about accuracy and context. But I think we could learn something from them about how to get a message across, and how to talk to a generation that has stopped bothering to read newspaper and watch TV news.

Follow @lindseyhilsum on Twitter.

Why I think Kony 2012 campaign is wrong: read Polis Director Charlie Beckett’s view