The International Obsession With Joseph Kony Is Already Ending

The Kony 2012 campaign treated its audience like children with short attention spans, and now that's how many of them are behaving.

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Almost exactly one week after viral video campaign Kony 2012 alerted millions of viewers to the horror of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, the start of what was supposed to be an international activism campaign to spur the U.S. military to arrest him, the world appears to have lost interest. According to Google data posted above, searches for Kony have dropped precipitously, as have his mentions in the news. Search volume looks to be dropping pretty rapidly back down toward zero, where it was throughout the now-over years of Kony's worst atrocities. The chart looks almost identical for U.S.-only searches.

For the sake of comparison, here's a chart that compares U.S. searches for (and, below that, news on) Kony, Oscars, NCAA, Obama, and Syria. The latter two barely register. The Oscars had a tellingly similar trajectory as Kony: an entertainment event that inspired frenzied but short-lived interest. The NCAA has just surpassed Kony in terms of the American Internet user's interest.

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Kony has also been dominating Twitter, frustrating human rights workers who wish the world could care this much about Syria, where approximately 100 civilians are being killed every day. Syria has been referenced 6.6 million times over the last three months, while Kony has been mentioned 11.5 million times in just one week. Foreign Policy's David Kenner noted that Syria is very complicated whereas the Kony 2012 video made Central Africa sound very simple, but says he suspects the attention probably won't make any real difference for Kony's actual victims:

The bigger question is whether any of this Internet-based sturm und drang can be translated into real-world action. Minty found that, during the peak of global interest in the Kony video, only about 140 tweets came out of Uganda regarding the story, and that Ugandans wrote only about 2,000 comments on Facebook out of a pool of 5 million -- a drop in the bucket compared to the deluge of comments coming from the United States and Europe.

Invisible Children, the NGO behind the campaign (and, always, the white faces in front of its many cameras), was probably never going to make much of a difference in the world with Kony 2012. The campaign was doomed for the exact same reasons for its success at generating viewers and media buzz. It reduced Central African violence to such simplicity that viewers didn't have to bother themselves with learning more, and it told people that all they had to do to fix the problem was share the video on Facebook and maybe buy a wristband.

"Americans' heartlessness or apathy was never the biggest problem," Kate Cronin-Furman and Amanda Taub wrote last week of the misguided campaign. Invisible Children managed to generate lots of short-term interest, which is nice in that it's good for people to care about others, but has proven useless at actually improving anyone's life in Central Africa. Maybe that's because the video painted such a simplistic picture that legitimately engaged people don't know enough, or they now have too much bad information, to do something on their own. Maybe it's because Invisible Children treated the campaign more like a viral puppy video than an international human rights campaign, so that's how everyone else is treating it. Human rights issues like Darfur might generate months of years of engagement, but Kony 2012 had one really good week, and now it's over. That's too bad, because Central African violence is the kind of issue that could benefit from a small but passionate and knowledgeable group of people, not from a 50 million-person mob with a 30-minute attention span.

In the end, Invisible Children got exactly what they asked for: retail revenue for themselves (the $30 "action kit" of stickers and bracelets sold out in hours, went on a months-long back-order, and are no longer available) and nothing for actual Africans. The group treated its audience like short-sighted, emotionally selfish children -- the video's narrative message is literally delivered to a small child who can barely bring himself to pay attention -- and that's how they behaved.

Update, March 15: The Western world may have already burned through its enthusiasm for Invisible Children's campaign, but many actual Africans are just now seeing it, and they don't care for it. A planned screening tour of Uganda, Kony's home country and the site of his worst atrocities, has been cancelled after Ugandans reacted with outrage to the film's patronizing treatment of Africans and its glorification of white NGO workers.

The first screening was held this week in the northern Uganda town of Lira, once an epicentre of the battles between the LRA and the Ugandan military. The video was projected onto a white sheet, held up by crude metal rods, in a dusty town park. An estimated 5,000 people flocked to the show.

Curiosity soon turned to bafflement, and then to anger. The screening was hastily abandoned when people jeered and threw stones, forcing the crowd to scatter.

Many Ugandans at the screening were upset that the video focused on the U.S. filmmaker, Jason Russell, and his young blond son. Some were offended by its call to "make Kony famous" by putting his image on T-shirts and posters, since they saw this as giving celebrity status to a killer.