John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Guest Post: Kony 2012 “Cover the Night” a Flop?

by Guest Blogger for John Campbell
April 23, 2012

Supporters watch a projection that is part of the non-profit organization Invisible Children's "Kony 2012" viral video campaign in New York April 20, 2012. (Keith Bedford/Courtesy Reuters)


Asch Harwood is the Africa program research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Update: I was recently interviewed on NPR’s “On the Media.” You can listen here.

When Invisible Children released its call to “make Kony famous” on April 20, Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in the New Yorker about the inadequacy of social media to affect social change came immediately to mind. The Kony 2012 video, with its eighty million plus YouTube views, could easily be seen as a litmus test for his hypothesis: can online networks translate into offline action?

If we are to believe press reports about Friday’s “Cover the Night” event, I can only imagine that Gladwell is feeling at least a little vindicated.

The 80 million YouTube viewers didn’t turn out to plaster their cities with images of Joseph Kony. Nor did many who RSVPed via Facebook to local events.

So yes, from that perspective, it was a failure. Characterizations of “slacktivism” are apt.

But did we realistically expect that our cities would be inundated with protestors demanding Kony’s arrest, that Times Square would be blanketed with images of the warlord, or even worse, that well-meaning but ill-informed young people would start trouncing off to Uganda in search of Joseph Kony (not that anyone suggested the latter)?

Despite the no shows, I would like to offer an alternative perspective–that the interest in, and debate about Africa that it inspired, even if just for a handful of young people, is a success in itself.

In my (limited) experience, Africa does not inspire the masses of Americans. The “dark continent” remains dark for most. As a result, I spend a lot of time trying to get people to listen.

The Kony video was remarkably successful at this. For fifteen minutes, people were talking about Africa. That’s not bad considering how hard it is to get the continent on anybody’s agenda.

And a few people, many of whom were not previously interested, did indeed show up for events or put up posters (these notwithstanding). So, in this case, I’m not sure we need people to go out and “do” something. Instead, we should hope that they have been inspired to go beyond Joseph Kony to discover Africa in its diversity and energy, and perhaps, eventually choose Africa as their course of study or vocation.

Post a Comment 12 Comments

  • Posted by Angie

    So I was directed to this post by a friend – that’s my face up there, front and center in the image you used from Reuters.

    Cover the Night was initially planned as an event to make Kony famous – after the incredible success of the first video, that sort of became a moot point, only because his name is certainly known. I have been passionate about this cause and will continue to be, and I view any day when someone who previously didn’t know about the cause now knows, and maybe cares, a success.

    Thanks for your perspective.

  • Posted by Nancy Swain

    I postered on 4/20/12. I am wearing a bracelet and I shared the original video with many on my email list. I also sent links to Invisible Children’s rebuttals to those who pointed out they thought the movement was not financially on the up and up.

    I’m not an idealistic kid, I know that I am just one person and so fairly insignificant, but I am at least a person who cared enough to try to bring attention some of the issues in Africa and I won’t give up.

  • Posted by Maduka

    Do you realise that the future of Africa depends very little on whether US college kids are in interested in Africa or not?

    Let me remind you that most of the “Arab Spring” took place in Africa – and the Arab Spring points to the future of Africa – young Africans fighting for their future.

    The levels of ignorance about Africa are shocking, not only because Americans don’t know, but they also don’t want to know.

    Twenty years ago, the US had a golden opportunity to shape Africa, but this opportunity was squandered. Today, the future of Africa lies more with Beijing than with Washington – irrespective of what young American college kids think or do.

  • Posted by aharwood

    Dear Maduka,

    Of course, I do. That doesn’t mean that Americans shouldn’t be encouraged to take an interest in the continent. And, you will note, I was very clear in pointing out the importance of seeking a deeper understanding than to be found in the Kony video.


  • Posted by aharwood


    Thanks for your comment. Your commitment is excellent. Keep at it!


  • Posted by aharwood

    Excellent point. If the goal of the video was actually to get the word out, then a smaller turn out is less important. And thanks for letting us (and Reuters) use your likeness!


  • Posted by Maduka


    Africa needs an alternative model of engagement. There are 500 million African mobile telephone subscribers, so Africans are not totally in the dark.

    The focus shouldn’t be on how to get Americans interested in Africa, but how to partner with young Africans to drive change in their continent.

    True, the young activists may be better informed than the Kony campaigners, but they are yet to fully grasp that the power to effect change does not rest in them or in the United States.

    It lies with young men like Mohammed Bouazizi. There is a Wael Ghonim and Gigi Ibrahim in every African nation. Engage them.

  • Posted by Koop

    The ostensible goal of the video was to raise awareness in our youth about Kony, war crimes and genocide, and to call for a better, more just world. The actual goal of the video was to enlist millions of innocent, partially informed, well-meaning and generous hearted youths to unknowingly support geopolitical dominance and military intervention in Africa for purposes of controlling assets and seizing resources in a coordinated operation between the US, Nato, the ICC, and international corporate banking and business.

  • Posted by Maduka

    I also forgot to add that there is no such thing as “Africa”. There fifty-something very different countries, with very different histories.

    This blog for example, is a symptom of that problem. This blog shouldn’t be called “Africa in Transition”, it should be called “Nigeria and South Africa in Transition, with occasional forays to South Sudan and the Sahel Region”.

    Ghana is barely mentioned, Congo is barely touched and Namibia, Botswana, Tanzania, Zambia, Benin and Togo do not exist as far as this blog is concerned.

    There is no point blogging about “Africa”, it is too big a topic to be covered in a single blog.

  • Posted by aharwood

    I couldn’t agree more.

  • Posted by Alvaro

    Kudos to the Invisible Children charity, and for those involved in the Kony 2012 movement. Yes, a better understanding of the continent and the conflict would be great. But lack of such understanding (assuming for a second that there is a lack of it) does not diminish the value of what the movement intended to do, and the virtues of their actions. Something is wrong, and someone should do something about it. Why not us?

  • Posted by Moustapha Harouna

    Those last 2 exchanges were absolutely hilarious. Why would the author of the post agree that there is no point blogging about Africa when that is what he does?

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