It was less a case of Invisible Children and more a case of Invisible Activists on Friday night. That date, 20 April, was the occasion of Kony 2012’s Cover the Night campaign. Reports suggest it flopped worldwide but that Cape Town put in a good effort. They also suggest that Internet causes don’t necessarily translate into concrete action. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Since the release of its viral Kony 2012 video in March, Invisible Children has been taking flak from all directions. The campaign, to make Lord’s Resistance Army-leader Joseph Kony famous in order to keep international attention focused on attempts to bring him to justice, was accused of being simplistic, naive and culturally insensitive. In the resulting maelstrom of media scrutiny and criticism, founder Jason Russell was captured on camera suffering a public breakdown, beating the ground while naked and ranting about the devil.  

This was a PR nightmare for the organisation, and the media-savvy group took swift action. On 5 April, Invisible Children released Kony 2012: Part II: Beyond Famous, to address the concerns of their detractors. This 20-minute sequel to the original viral video was much more balanced and informative, and consequently much less compelling. It has garnered just under 2 million views on YouTube at the time of writing, as compared with the original’s over 100 million views.

Presumably as a result of Jason Russell’s meltdown, the follow-up video stars the organisation’s far less telegenic CEO Ben Keesey. In response to criticisms that the group was out of touch with the realities of ordinary Ugandans, the video features a lot of behind-the-scenes footage of the group interacting with locals. It also attributes much of the thinking behind the Kony 2012 campaign to Invisible Children’s Ugandan country director, Jolly Okot. Ugandan and Congolese politicians are filmed expressing support for the campaign.

The video claims Invisible Children has “hardly been able to keep up” with the worldwide activity around the Stop Kony campaign, saying that after the first film went viral they received 200 calls every two minutes from people wanting to be involved. They are also at pains to stress the material successes achieved by the campaign. A fortnight after the first video launched, two bi-partisan resolutions condemning Kony and the LRA were introduced to the US Senate and have been signed by 100 members of Congress.

The African Union also subsequently authorised a 5,000-strong force to join the hunt for Kony. Other concrete action taken includes the fact that the UN approached Invisible Children to design and distribute flyers giving LRA combatants advice on how to escape.

The second video also pays tribute to previous efforts by religious groups and politicians to find Kony and negotiate with the LRA, something the first video was accused of omitting. They explicitly note that Invisible Children was not the first organisation to work on the issue.

The video concludes with instructions for the next step in the campaign: the Cover the Night event. “Join us on April 20th when we cover the night,” says the video. “Get ready. On April 20th we will turn this digital revolution into something more, and show the world who we really are”.

The campaign was highly ambitious: to wait until nightfall on 20 April and then cover “every city, on every block” around the world with posters and flyers publicising the Kony 2012 campaign.

The campaign came under harsh criticism in the country concerned beforehand. The Ugandan director of the African Youth Initiative Network, Victor Ochen, was quoted criticising the choice of date for the event, saying: “Why 20 April? Don’t they know or care that this is the anniversary of one of the worst LRA massacres, when over 300 people were killed at Atiak in 2005?”

It also happens to be the birth date of Adolf Hitler, with some critics denouncing this fact as showing insensitivity. (Hitler’s face features on some of the Kony 2012 posters, the intimation being that Joseph Kony joins a pantheon of evil men, like Hitler, in history.)

The mood around Kony 2012 in Uganda was particularly tense because of events a week previously. Ugandan media reported that on Friday 13 April, about 10,000 people flocked to the Pece stadium in Gulu, northern Uganda, to watch a public screening of the first and second Kony videos. The crowd rapidly turned rowdy, however, and began hurling stones at the screens. They had been brought there by misleading radio ads suggesting they were about to see films which explained the full history of Joseph Kony and the LRA.

Police used teargas at the scene to disperse the protestors and then locked a side entrance, causing a stampede through the main gate which killed one person. Uganda’s Acholi Times quoted one woman as saying “I don’t know if this is the kind of peace they (Invisible Children) think we should enjoy”.

There were initial suggestions that protests might be organised on 20 April to register disapproval of the Cover the Night campaign, but those apparently failed to materialise. However, if dissenting Ugandans feared the world would unite in large numbers for Cover the Night events, their concerns were unnecessary. Reports from around the world suggested cities remained resolutely un-Covered by Saturday morning.

Across the USA, it seemed only a handful of people took part in events in major cities, though the Invisible Children website featured pictures of stunts like a huge picture of Kony beamed on the side of a New York building. In Seattle it was reported that police officers tore down posters as soon as they were stuck up. Some media outlets suggested the organisers may have done themselves a disservice by selecting 20 April, celebrated as National Marijuana Day by weed aficionados.

In Canada, in the city of Hamilton, Ontario, 4,800 people had RSVPd to the event on Facebook in advance, with an actual turnout of about 20 people.

This disconnect between Facebook support and real-life participation was evident worldwide. In London, it was reported that about 50 of the 6,000 expected met at Trafalgar Square, intending to paper the famous square with posters. Unfortunately, organisers hadn’t realised that St George’s Day celebrations were being held in Trafalgar Square the day after, so there was no access to the square itself.

In Australia, about 50 people turned up to a Cover the Night event in Brisbane, and about 25 people participated in Sydney, according to local media reports.

About 100 people pitched up in Amsterdam for a screening of the film, with Radio Netherlands reporting that, “While many initially had been appalled by the atrocities shown in the film, it seemed to have lost its impact. Taking pictures with smartphones, filming the event and posting it immediately on Facebook and Twitter seemed to be more important”.

Social media, the conduit for the Kony campaign’s initial success, now became the vehicle for its condemnation, with Twitter users branding the event an “epic fail”. In the mainstream media, where criticism of the campaign had been loud and sustained, there were suggestions that Invisible Children’s credibility was now fatally damaged. Yet the group itself seemed determined to spin Cover the Night as a success, tweeting links to pictures and videos and announcing: “Cleanups, food drives & gardening were just a few of the creative service projects people did leading up to #coverthenight”.

But the organisation seemed particularly impressed by one city’s participation. Invisible Children tweeted: “Cape Town, South Africa might need to open up an IC office #honoraryemployees #coverthenight  #amazing“, with a link to a video made by Shane Vermooten. The video captures about 30 young Capetonians pasting Kony 2012 posters and distributing flyers around the CBD, and explaining their motivations for doing so. It’s shot in a funky, choppy style and set to the K’naan World Cup hit Waving the Flag. As such, it fits perfectly with the Invisible Children aesthetic. In fact, it could easily have been produced by the San Diego-based HQ.  

Photo: Cover the night, Cape Town chapter. SHANE VERMOOTEN.

The Daily Maverick tracked down Vermooten, 22, a freelance film editor and director. He explained that his involvement with the campaign had been limited to shooting the video. Cape Town’s Cover the Night activities were co-ordinated by an 18-year-old called Michel Comitis, who matriculated from Bishops last year and will start studying at Brown University in the US in August.

Comitis was at pains to stress that he had no affiliation with Invisible Children and was only interested in the cause: “I know there’s a lot of speculation about the organisation, but I found the cause noble.” Comitis used his personal networks and social media to disseminate information about the 20 April plans. He then had 5,000 posters and flyers printed at his own expense. About 3,000 ended up being distributed.

A group assembled on the allotted evening near the Cape Town Station and proceeded to paper the centre of town with their material. Comitis estimated the total number of people involved as amounting to around 200, though he said it was difficult to say with precision because people came through in dribs and drabs. Posters were also dropped off for distribution in other areas of Cape Town.

Invisible Children had been in touch, Comitis said, to give thanks and advice, although he again stressed his distance from the group. “Because there’s been doubts about where the money is going, we didn’t want to raise money for them,” he explained. He said he found negativity about the cause in South Africa to be “sad” given the country’s history of oppression.

“There’s someone who’s doing harm close to home, and I can’t see how any decent person can object to raising awareness about that issue. Why not try to get involved? When people every day are saying ‘What are you doing, it’s stupid’, it can be hard to keep going, but at the end of the day I feel good about what we did.”

Vermooten explained that he deliberately shot the video in the style of the other Invisible Children films.

“I had watched their videos and knew how they shoot: guerrilla-style.” He said he had emailed the organisation his film after producing it, and hoped to have further contact with them.

Photo: Cover the night, Cape Town chapter. SHANE VERMOOTEN.

Reports from social media suggested that Cover the Night activities had also taken place in other South African cities, but at the time of writing there didn’t seem to be any other snappy videos circulating other than the one from Cape Town.

It remains to be seen how long the posters will last on the city streets. The Daily Maverick received a report that some Kony 2012 posters stuck up around Cape Town’s Varsity College had already been papered over by a concerned individual with an explanation of why the cause was problematic, including facts about Invisible Children, and concluding with the words: “Let’s stop buying into glamour causes. Let’s start making a difference in meaningful, measurable and mature ways. Instant outrage is easy. Actual critical engagement is much harder and, therefore, much more valuable.”

As for Invisible Children, they have already released their next video, titled What’s Next. It announces the organisation’s plans to descend on the UN in June to deliver Kony 2012 pledges, but says the next big thing will happen on 3 November. On that day, they promise, “This movement will unite like never before”. There are no further details. DM


Read more:

  • Kony 2012 Cover the Night fails to move from the internet to the streets, in the Guardian.

Photo: Cover the night, Cape Town chapter. SHANE VERMOOTEN.


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