March 09, 2012

What 'Kony 2012' Means for Online Advocacy

Since Monday, "Kony 2012," the 30-minute video released by Invisible Children, a San Diego advocacy group, has garnered more than 50 million views on YouTube, making a household name of Joseph Kony, head of the Lord's Resistance Army operating in Central Africa.

While the video has enthralled young people on social networks and has been been shared by celebrities, it has also drawn comments and, often, criticism, from opinion makers in the realms of international advocacy and social-media marketing.

Jillian York, director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocate for digital rights and access, says that people can support a cause over social media without stopping to investigate whether an advocacy group has other intentions.

"When you don't have a lot of objective or investigative reporting, these really slick campaigns become the reporting," says Ms. York in an article in The Globe and Mail.

There weren't just celebrities chiming in their support. Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, gave a statement on Thursday in support of Invisible Children's video for "raising awareness of the horrific activities of the LRA."

Scott Ross, who has worked for several nonprofit causes, writes in his blog: "I understand that advocacy groups need to take really complex problems and boil them down so that it can be disseminated among supporters." However, he says, after a movement advances past that initial phase, it should begin to educate its followers more deeply. "I have yet to see [Invisible Children] expand on its very simplistic history of the war, which is critical to understanding how best to approach ending it."

Charity Navigator gives Invisible Children a rating of four out of four stars financially, but two out of four stars in accountability and transparency because its board has fewer than five members and it does not have an audit oversight committee.

Invisible Children released a response to criticism of its spending, including a breakdown of its financial statement. The group says that it will not use donations to support the government of Uganda but also writes, "The only feasible and proper way to stop Kony and protect the civilians he targets is to coordinate efforts with regional governments."

The video from Invisible Children is below. What were your reactions?