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What happened to Kony 2012?



Joseph Kony’s face was once plastered on the internet but the viral documentary failed to lead to his arrest

It was the documentary that broke the internet.

Click after click, and share after share, Joseph Kony quickly became a household name. 

But what happened next, was a fall from grace like no other, which sent the internet into overdrive once again.

At the start of 2012, much of the world had never heard of Joseph Kony. However, he was already on an international most wanted list for his crimes against humanity.

Human rights groups were among those who had him firmly in their sights. UNICEF believed he was responsible for displacing over 2.5 million people across Central Africa.

The International Criminal Court charged Kony with responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the forced enlistment of children as soldiers through abduction, and sexual enslavement.

His operation would come to the limelight on 5 March, 2012, when Jason Russell’s documentary, Kony 2012 comes to life.

Joseph Kony was the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Russell was one of the co-founders of the charity organisation, Invisible Children.

He explains the conflict in simple terms to his son Gavin, who was five at the time.

“I’ve never really explained to him what I do. He knows I work in Africa but he doesn’t know what the war’s about, or who Joseph Kony is.”

Russell’s message was simple: make Joseph Kony a household name.

“The next 27 minutes are an experiment. But in order for it to work, you have to listen.

“If we succeed, we change the course of human history,” Russell said.

Justin Bieber and Oprah Winfrey were among the celebrities who pounced on finding the African war lord and bringing him to justice.

What happened next?

The documentary quickly became the most viral YouTube video of all time. It exploded to over 100 million views in six days.

“Before Kony 2012, the most viral video on the internet was Susan Boyle’s Britain’s Got Talent video,” said Emma Madden, who has recently written about the 10-year anniversary of the documentary.

“Virality was a new phenomenon and things that tended to go viral at this time were things that aroused emotions, which the Kony 2012 video did.”


The campaign asked people to like and share the documentary, and buy a $30 action kit, which included posters, t-shirts and stickers.

Madden said the video targeted younger people, and empowered them to use their voices to demand change.

“I was 17 when I saw this video, so I was the target audience. If I am talking to anyone else my age, there are common memories.”

In the documentary, Russell encourages viewers to continue the momentum by writing to their local government representatives, and covering their cities with posters.

It became known as the now-infamous ‘Cover the Night’ campaign, where “every city, on every block” would be covered with posters and stickers of Joseph Kony.

“That was a huge failure. There was really only a handful of people showing up in cities across the U.S. and Canada,” said Dr Johannes von Engelhardt from the University of Amsterdam.

Dr von Engelhardt has conducted research on audience perspectives of Kony 2012. He found the filmmakers mitigated a sense of personal moral responsibility to act towards the distant suffering of others.

“It was really every organisations worst nightmare. The fierceness and scale of the attack that was launched on Invisible Children was disastrous.”


The net proceeds from the Kony 2012 campaign amounted to approximately $12.6 million.

But as fast as the campaign took off, it quickly came crashing down.

Was Jason Russell running naked in the street?

Yes. One week after the documentary’s release, Jason Russell was filmed nude, and screaming profanities by TMZ.

“There were at the time rumours he was masturbating publicly, which was not true,” Dr von Engelhardt said.

“It shows how interesting the story was of seeing him collapse like that as a result of the attacks on the organisation, which were immense.”

Jason Russell is the man behind the Kony 2012 documentary.

The filmmaker was not arrested but was instead placed in psychiatric support.

Emma Madden said this was a turning point for the Kony 2012 movement.

“Jason has a breakdown within 10 days. That was quite a pivotal moment for the video, it’s response and its implosion.”


“10 years later, nobody knows who Kony is. They are more likely to remember Jason’s breakdown,” she said.

The dream of capturing Josef Kony had become as far and distant as the conflict itself.

“I think the word slacktivism was coined in this time—putting the word ‘slacker’ and ‘activism’ together—you can’t enforce change by just using Twitter,” Madden said.

Where is Joseph Kony?

The Lord’s Resistance Army remains active across Africa. Although, its members have dropped over time.

In 2017, Ugandan military forces abandoned their search efforts for Kony. Brigadier Richard Karemire, from the Uganda People’s Defense Force said he no longer posed a threat.

“As far as we are concerned, we’ve already achieved our mission,” he told the New York Times.

Invisible Children continues its work through a range of projects across central Africa.

“Most of what they do isn’t really on social media anymore. They’re working in Uganda, helping to build infrastructure,” Madden said.

Jason Russell declined an interview for this story. However, he has written a series of children’s books. Meanwhile, his son Gavin is in high school.

Joseph Kony, however, was never captured.

Costa is a news producer at ticker NEWS. He has previously worked as a regional journalist at the Southern Highlands Express newspaper. He also has several years' experience in the fire and emergency services sector, where he has worked with researchers, policymakers and local communities. He has also worked at the Seven Network during their Olympic Games coverage and in the ABC Melbourne newsroom. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts (Professional), with expertise in journalism, politics and international relations. His other interests include colonial legacies in the Pacific, counter-terrorism, aviation and travel.

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