If you want to know what viral looks like, take a look at the Vimeo page where the makers of the Kony 2012 film that last week swept the internet first posted their video. The on-page statistics box tells its own story: on February 20, its first day on the site, it had three views; over the next week it has the occasional zero and more regular highs of between 15 and 22 views a day. The weekend before last was somewhat worse with just four views on the Saturday and eight on the Sunday. There was little appetite for a 30 minute film on a Ugandan warlord, even one such as Joseph Rao Kony who used child soldiers in an attempt to set up a brutal theocratic state and was indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
Then Monday happened: 58,000 views; then Tuesday: 2.7 million; then Wednesday: 8.2 million. In parallel the video’s upload onto YouTube was rising into the tens of millions of views. It went viral. Celebrities with a strong network presence (Oprah, Justin Bieber, P Diddy) had recommended it on Twitter but what was pushing it so far so fast was that millions of others, mainly teenagers, took to Facebook and BlackBerrys to act on the film's own appeal and spread word of Kony's infamy, themselves becoming part of its narrative.
Kony 2012 is a slick, well-made production that pulls every emotional lever it can. The first child that appears is not Ugandan but the San Diego-based filmmaker's own son, Gavin, who we see from birth (thanks to a video camera in the delivery room) and then growing up. “He didn’t choose when or where he was born but because he was born here he matters,” his father narrates. In one bonding session (there are many) father and son sit down to look at a Facebook timeline and scroll back in time through moments in the life of Jacob, a Ugandan boy who at a similar age to Gavin is now saw his brother’s throat cut by Kony’s rebels and lived in fear of abduction and death every time the night fell.
Much of the criticism the film has attracted has concerned its rather simplistic rendering of a complex insurgency: Kony’s enemies committed atrocities themselves and were not the uncomplicated “good guys” the film presents; no one (not least Barack Obama, who ordered them in) is seeking to remove the 100 US military advisers now in Uganda; and finally, the film’s focus on stopping Kony in the Gulu region is somewhat out of date – he is not believed to have been in Uganda since 2005, and what remains of his LRA is now based in South Sudan and the DRC.
Others see in it as a return to tropes of European imperialism which presented the African in need of the white man’s salvation. “The fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex,” tweeted Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole. “I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.” Many agreed. The arguments have run and run.
What is remarkable about Kony 2012, however, is not how it succeeds as a piece of journalism (badly) but how successfully it has delivered on its own promises (very well). The film’s opening sequence simply says “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come” before cutting to a montage showing, from space, the lights tracing urban North America and Europe at night and a greatest hits clip reel of news such as the Arab Spring and Haiti earthquake rescue with a social media angle. “There are more people on Facebook than there were in the world 200 years ago,” the narrator tells us. "People just want to connect, we hear each other, we share what we love and it reminds us what we have in common."
It is pure cyber-utopianism yet the key quote is still to come: “The next 27 minutes are an experiment, but in order for it to work you have to pay attention.” The experiment is to make Kony famous by the power of social media connections. The closing sequence shows fresh-faced young Americans wearing Kony 2012 T-shirts and waving Kony 2012 placards who have joined in this campaign, recalling nothing so much as the 2008 Obama campaign and some of its more messianic claims to supporters that “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” It offers the promise that your participation can make a difference - and the way you can help is by speading the message.
It’s a seductive message to hear and to share, as the Vimeo and YouTube figures clearly attest to. Will it bring Kony to justice? Maybe not. But it has certainly made him better known.
Simon Jeffery is story producer for guardian.co.uk, specialising in online projects.