At this point it’s no secret there are big problems with Kony 2012, a video published in March 2012 by Invisible Children, Inc., an organization that “uses film, creativity and social action to end the use of child soldiers in Joseph Kony’s rebel war and” to bring peace to “LRA-affected communities in central Africa.” In its short existence, Kony 2012 has achieved fame—and notoriety—around the world, both because it knowingly started a media blitzkrieg and because critics have good ammunition, from Invisible Children’s furtive Christianity to its well-documented manipulation of facts to the arrest of filmmaker Jason Russell. In response to the controversy, Invisible Children rushed to release a sequel on April 5, 2012, Kony 2012: Part II–Beyond Famous, in which the group all but removes Russell from the narrative and addresses widespread criticism that it watered down a complex issue. As I write this post one month after the release of Kony 2012, it’s surreal how much the good feelings toward it have evaporated.
A quick type into Google’s search engine for “Kony 2012 is” gives telling autocompletions: “Isn’t real.” “Is bullshit.” “Is it real?” “Is it legit?” “Is about what?” “Is annoying.” “Is bull.” “Is dumb.” “Is it fake?” “Is a waste of time.” Kony 2012 is surrounded by distrust and suspicion, more so than typically accompanies new entrants to the cultural archive. Marketing agency PM Digital claims that slightly over half of Google’s users are under 34 years of age. Ben Keesey, Invisible Children’s executive director, told CNN on the day Beyond Famous was released that the group “made the first video intentionally for a young Western audience”—which was obvious even without his saying so, given its high production values and abundance of teen faces. Juxtaposing the demographics of Google’s audience with its negative autocompletions that reflect actual and frequent searches, it seems the very audience that Invisible Children was targeting is the group that has spearheaded the cynicism.
Generation Y, of course, is known for its cynicism. But with regard to Kony 2012, while plenty of young people have been genuinely moved, that trademark Millennial snark seems unusually pointed. There are a few possible reasons for this, among them the simple fact that most people are wary when it comes to political issues, even when those issues deal with ostensibly positive things like bringing a murderous raping warlord to justice. Moreover, modern Western culture thrives on issues du jour, which leads to ‘issue’ saturation and a hardwired skepticism of slogans, sleekness and (buzz)words like “awareness.”
But two additional realities specifically affect Kony 2012. First, while it’s clichéd to blame the fourth estate, it’s likely there was never as much outrageous, heart-wrenched goodwill toward the film as the media led consumers to believe. There was shock, as there often is when the veil is lifted and ‘first-world’ denizens glimpse ‘third-world’ life. White guilt may have even played a role, as Caucasians constitute 72% of the U.S. population and the video exploded on Facebook, whose population is 30% U.S. American. Still, news outlets likely were preemptive and presumptuous, drumming up good vibes (or at least exaggerating them) in order to look in step with Millennials, whose interests are always one step ahead.
More importantly, it also looks like Millennials, the audience to whom Invisible Children later conceded they were catering, became almost instantaneously aware of their being targeted, and strangely—yet naturally—resented it. Every era is defined by the wants and needs of its youngest demographic with power. Millennials have been that group for the last decade and will be so for about another. In the past they have provedwilling to bask in the products and services they get, make and influence without much concern for the fact that their pleasure and attention were the obvious goals of some entity. But Kony 2012 represents the first time that Millennials, often pegged as self-centered shoegazers, seem to mind their status as clear targets for a message.
Only once before have the young received such an intense overture: Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, which also wooed them through social media. Four years ago Generation Y was honored and energized by the outreach. This time around though, even with large segments sincerely invested, Millennials are widely interpreting a sleek call to arms through social media as pandering. Anecdote isn’t fact, but I have yet to meet a single person who has bought an “Action Kit”—while I’ve met several who dismissed the video outright as propaganda. Obama and Invisible Children conducted wildly different campaigns on a variety of levels, but both ran on electronic networking and the no-bones-about-it nanotargeting of young people. Millennials’ action then and their skepticism now suggest they are starting to figure things out—like the degree to which they are willing to be targeted, and the projects they are prepared to trust.
Featured image by REUTERS/Brendan McDermid.