If you’ve spent any time at all on Twitter and Facebook over the last week or so, you’ve undoubtably heard about KONY2012. The campaign by the nonprofit advocacy group Invisible Children centered around Joseph Kony, the Uganda warlord and leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a guerrilla group with a long and violent history that includes the kidnapping of children. With striking and dramatic imagery and Hollywood-style editing, the campaign video presents an utterly compelling message in the age of “social” media: by simply clicking “share,” you can make a difference in the world.
And “share” the world did, the video racking up 100 million views YouTube in only six days (the fastest campaign to surpass that high bar after Susan Boyle did it in 9, and Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance took 18 days). The preliminary YouTube data paints a picture of a youth movement: the video was heavily viewed from mobile phones and is most popular with 13-17 year old females and 18-24 year old males.
The campaign’s seemingly overnight success brought with it a wave of criticism, too, from commentators from around the web who wonder if the message doesn’t oversimplify a complex issue. We recommend Ethan Zuckerman’s critique on over-simplification, as well as this Jenkins & students piece that adds much needed context.
Of course we were curious about the volume and spread of the message from a data perspective. How and why did the message spread so fast and was it truly out of nowhere? What we found may surprise you:
- Having pre-existing networks in place helped the initial spread of their message. Our data shows dense clusters of activity that were essential to the message’s spread: networks of youth that Invisible Children had been cultivating across the US for years. When Invisible Children wanted to promote this video, deploying the grass-roots support of these groups was essential.
- Attention philanthropy tactics activated celebrity accounts and drew substantial visibility. Invisible Children enlisted the help of their supporters in barraging celebrities to come out in support of the campaign, making it incredibly easy to Tweet at Taylor Swift or Rihanna within two clicks. Once celebrities came on board, the campaign was given multiple boosts.
The story unfolds in a volume of mentions
Looking at the Twitter data, it’s shocking to see just how much attention this campaign brought to the subjects of Uganda and Joseph Kony. For example, if we compare the usage of the #Kony2012 and #StopKony hashtags with the #SXSW hashtag which was extremely active over the past week, we see almost 20x difference in traffic at the peaks. #StopKony had 12,000 tweets per ten minutes at the height of the events, while #SXSW only 900.
If we plot out the number of appearances of the words Uganda and Kony we see very similar spikes. With close to zero references of Uganda or Kony on Twitter before the start of the campaign, we see an incredibly steep rise after the video started making the rounds, reaching 25,000 tweets referencing Kony within a 10 minute interval.
Having the Right Networks in Place
Contrary to what many people may think, all of this attention didn’t happen overnight. In looking at the data, we detected that a pre-existing networked infrastructure was already set in place, triggered at the start of the campaign. Invisible Children has already been building an on-the-ground network of young supporters across the United States, activating them all at the same time, as the campaign began. The data makes this clear.
The graph below represents the initial 5,000 users who posted to the #Kony2012 hashtag. Each node represents a Twitter user, while the edges represent their connections, effectively who follows whom. The more red a node, the earlier it participated in using the hashtag. The graph is organized using the OpenOrd layout algorithm which places highly connected users in close proximity, identifying major clusters within the graph.
The data reinforces what we suspect about the organization. The organization’s formal profile (@invisible) is central to their activity, also represented in the graph. In the top-center, we see the Invisible Children founder Jason Russell (@JasonRussell) and other employees of the organization. We can also see Kristen Bell (@IMKristenBell) who was very much involved with the organization from early on. The most interesting aspects of this graph are the other clusters that appear. These are highly connected groups of users who were posting to the cause from very early on.
When we dig into the profiles that comprise the clusters, we see some fascinating characteristics emerge. Each cluster represents users from different physical locations. The large cluster on the top right includes users from Birmingham Alabama who were some of the earliest to publicize the video. The cluster is substantially larger than the others, leading us to believe that Invisible Children had strong roots in Alabama. Additionally, the hashtag #Kony2012 initially trended in Birmingham on March 1st, a few days before the video was even placed online. Other clusters in the graph include Pittsburgh, Oklahoma City and Noblesville Indiana (see graph below).
This movement did not emerge from the big cities, but rather small-medium sized cities across the Unites States. It is heavily supported by Christian youth, many of whom post Biblical psalms as their profile bios. Below is a wordle tagcloud highlighting the most common words that appear in their user bios. We easily identify prominent words such as Jesus, God, Christ, University and Student.
Attention Philanthropy Tactics
By using specific tactics the organization got a number of very visible celebrities to publicly support their cause. If you scroll down the Kony 2012 website you’ll see the faces of celebrities and politicians associated with the cause. Users are encouraged to click on the celeb image which then props up an auto-generated Tweet that pings the chosen celebrity and asks them to view the video and support the cause.
The outcome of this tactic were tens thousands of mentions generated by users of the site and targeted at celebrity accounts. Ellen Degeneres (@TheEllenShow), for example, saw over 36,000 mentions from different users pleading her to respond to the cause. So did Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Oprah and Taylor Swift, amongst many others. Both Oprah and Bieber chose to respond and amplify the cause while Lady Gaga, Jay-Z and Stephen Colbert chose not to.
Here’s an example Tweet posted by Ryan Seacrest after being bombarded by thousands of Tweets:
— Ryan Seacrest (@RyanSeacrest) March 7, 2012
This tactic obviously worked. Nine celebrities out of the curated list on the website chose to publicly support the cause, drawing substantial amounts of attention. This raises some important questions about the type of tactics used to demand their attention. Is it okay to deploy such tactics to get people to easily ping celebrities? Some services deploy similar tactics that get constituents to call or send messages to their representatives. How is this different?
On the other side of the scale, what are the unintended consequences of drawing attention to a cause one has not completely evaluated? And how can celebrities make the best decision when targeted by so many requests coming from so many directions? Seems like in this case, the loud voice won. Will this type of behavior encourage more to use the same tactics? And how will this change the way celebrities interact with audiences on these platforms?
In part because of celebrity attention philanthropy, over 100 million people have focused their attention to Uganda over the past week. That’s an incredible feat.
The big question is what Invisible Children will do with all that earned attention. We’re certainly staying tuned.