At the start of 2012, much of the world had never heard of Joseph Kony, a Central African warlord responsible, by UNICEF’s count, for abducting tens of thousands of children to enslave them and use them as soldiers, and for displacing more than 2.5 million people throughout the region.
But that would change on March 5. Jason Russell, a founder of the nonprofit Invisible Children, had directed a film called “Kony 2012” that was meant to expose a violent crisis.
“We felt if people in the Western world knew about this atrocity, it’d stop in days,” Mr. Russell, 43, said in a phone interview.
In the video, released on YouTube by Invisible Children, Mr. Russell explains the conflict in simple terms suited for his 5-year-old son, Gavin, who appears in the video alongside inspirational images of defiant Ugandan children and activists in North America. At the end, Mr. Russell issues a call to action: for celebrities, policymakers and anyone else watching to help make Joseph Kony a household name.
When Oprah Winfrey tweeted “Kony 2012,” its views rose from 66,000 to nine million, according to Gilad Lotan, a data scientist who compiled a visual analysis of its spread. Justin Bieber, Rihanna and Kim Kardashian shared it, too. Within a week, the video had hit 100 million — a record on YouTube at the time — and Mr. Kony had become the target of a global civilian manhunt.
Ten years on, Mr. Kony remains at large, Gavin has started high school, and Mr. Russell is still grappling with the mixed legacy of “Kony 2012.” At a time when a constant stream of videos on TikTok, Instagram and Twitter is illustrating the real-time destruction of Ukrainian cities by Russian forces, the film reads as both a relic of what experts have described as a techno-optimistic post-Arab Spring digital landscape and a precursor to an era of seemingly endless footage of violence and conflict on social media.
Invisible Children, which was founded in 2004 by Mr. Russell, Bobby Bailey and Laren Poole, had screened films about Mr. Kony and his rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, at events around the country, reaching a total of five million viewers, according to Mr. Russell. “Kony 2012,” he said, was “the first time we aggressively went after social media.”
In his analysis of the video’s spread, Mr. Lotan, the data scientist, noted dense clusters of activity in Dayton, Ohio, and Birmingham, Ala., two cities where Invisible Children had stopped on tour.
The spread of the film on the internet opened the organization up to all kinds of critiques. People online debated the film’s racial politics, the ethics of humanitarianism and the utility of “slacktivism,” the equation of likes and shares with action.
“The top criticism that I have read about over the years is the oversimplification of a complex issue,” Mr. Russell said. “To that I would say, ‘I hear you, but to make something go viral’ — our goal was to simplify a complex issue — ‘that’s what you have to do.’ In a sense it’s meant as a criticism, but I saw it as a compliment.”
At the time, the attention the film received became overwhelming for Mr. Russell, who was filmed walking naked around his neighborhood, yelling obscenities just over a week after its release. “There are very few examples of people who have been publicly shamed and put under that white-hot light that don’t have some kind of breakdown,” he said.
The footage was sold to TMZ, according to Mr. Russell, and #Horny2012 overtook #Kony2012 in trending hashtags on Twitter, as inaccurate reports surfaced that he had been masturbating in public. What began as an earnest attempt at consciousness raising had become a meme.
But the film clearly struck a chord with viewers, tapping into what Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Contagious: Why Things Catch On,” refers to as STEPPS: social currency, triggers, emotion, public practical value and story. These factors appeal to our psychological makeup and basic human motivations, Professor Berger said.
Eric Meyerson, the former head of partner marketing at YouTube, said that, at the time, “Kony 2012” leaned on the emotional qualities of the internet’s most resonant videos. Its first three minutes include footage of the Arab Spring and a child riding his bike for the first time.
“They were the videos that we at YouTube were trying to promote at the time, to submit for Webbys, the kinds of videos that would inspire good feelings, which are what bring people back to a platform,” Mr. Meyerson said. He added that in some cases viewers were left with the feeling that by consuming and sharing content, “they were helping to change the world.”
When Mr. Meyerson joined Facebook in 2015 to lead its video marketing team, that earnest sense of possibility still stood. But after the introduction of Facebook Live in August, the mood shifted, as graphic live-streamed footage started to appear.
“Then we had the rise of fake news, Brexit, Trump’s election,” he said, “and all of a sudden, by the end of 2016, it went from ‘social media can change the world for the better’ to ‘Facebook and YouTube and Twitter are destroying democracy.’” The conversations that soon followed were focused on algorithms, echo chambers and “post-truth” politics.
“The early 2010s was incredibly pivotal in changing our current information environment, and it doesn’t get the attention it deserves,” Mr. Meyerson said.
Now, the earliest images of conflict and crisis often come to us through social media, and are informed by the platforms where they are shared. “The advent of digital war has challenged the mainstream media and other elite actors in their capacity to shape what war looks like,” said Andrew Hoskins, an interdisciplinary research professor at the University of Glasgow.
“Looking at Twitter right now is very interesting,” he said, referring to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has been called the first TikTok war. The immense amount of “footage that floods our consciousness of conflict,” he said — open-source intelligence, citizen journalism on TikTok — “might revolutionize war, but it might make no difference at all.”
In 2017, the United States and Uganda scaled back a mission to capture Mr. Kony, stating that he no longer represented a regional threat. “Atrocities committed by the L.R.A. have been reduced by 80 percent,” Samuel Enosa Peni, the archbishop of the Western Equatoria State, wrote in an email. (He has lost three siblings to the army.)
Today, Invisible Children is focused entirely on local programs in Central Africa. Social media plays a minor role in its strategy.
Mr. Russell has also dialed back his digital presence. “While we now have the media literacy to debunk things like QAnon theories,” he said, “I can’t help that the internet still sort of triggers me.”