The first indication that something was amiss came one night last week, as Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi found himself swarmed on Twitter by young supporters of a foreign cause, who were trying to spread the word by bombarding public figures with links and pleas.
Mr. Nenshi, one of the rare politicians to give frank online feedback to citizens, seemed glad to see political passion, but urged the crowd to explain what they were trying to achieve. “Here's a hint,” he wrote to an applicant. “Try explaining your issue instead of sending hashtags over and over to people.”
It was, he later wrote, like having “an impromptu late-evening town hall with what feels like all the young people of Calgary.”
By the next day, the tidal wave of activism had spilled across the continent, and “Kony” was everywhere. A 30-minute video from a campaign called Invisible Children, targeting Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, had swept across the Internet, with acolytes in tow, propelled by canny marketing and celebrity endorsement.
Mr. Kony might be an object of hate, but his name quickly became a brand. This week, “Kony supporters” had come to mean people who support the uplifting movement to have him killed. And as we struggle to make sense of this burst of energy from our connected youth, there's a lesson in there: This phenomenon isn't actually about Joseph Kony at all.
The video's spread was followed, just as swiftly, by a global backlash for being self-aggrandizing, patronizing, and just plain wrong. These criticisms mostly focused on the group's approach to Mr. Kony and the loaded subject of African aid: The video springs from a tradition of Christian adventurism that goes back to Uganda's very creation as a nation-state in the late 1800s. Its foreign-policy outlook seems to be taken from Team America: its vision of the world is quite literally black-and-white.
Yet if you sit down to watch the film that's so effectively turned a local menace into a global figure, you'll notice something remarkable: Of the film's 30 minutes, only about a third is spent explicitly describing Mr. Kony himself. The remainder is dedicated to whipping the viewer into a frenzy about, well, us.
“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come; whose time is now,” read the white-on-black titles that open the film.
“There are more people on Facebook than there were on the planet 200 years ago,” intones the filmmaker. “Humanity's greatest desire is to belong and to connect, and now we see each other. We hear each other.”
Here are interspersed meaningful YouTube clips that many will recognize: Chilean miners emerging; a girl hearing herself for the first time.
“We share what we love and it reminds us what we all have in common.”
Here, repeated close-ups of cursors clicking “Share” buttons appear. The whole film is framed this way, with soft-focus references to “we,” a generational anthem for aspirational youth. By the time the filmmaker is shown telling an auditorium of youthful listeners, “Who are you to end a war? I'm here to tell you, who are you NOT to?” you might almost fail to register the absurdity of the statement.
The film proceeds to explain the Kony story, using the twin devices of a Ugandan child who's lost his brother and the filmmaker's own son. The filmmaker reduces the Ugandan situation to terms his son can understand. In a detail that does not seem coincidental, we see that his son enjoys making home movies in which bad guys get blown up.
But here is the video's brilliance: The last 15 minutes of the spot are dedicated to the campaign itself. The Kony video lays out a narrative in which American politicians refuse to send their troops after this one warlord; Invisible Children chalks this up to a lack of political will.
So the film illustrates an awareness campaign that grows until President Barack Obama sends military advisers into the region to help hunt for Mr. Kony – a decision that Invisible Children seems quite happy to take credit for. But the pressure must be kept up! That's why the group's new mission, we learn, is to turn Joseph Kony into a celebrity, covering both the Internet and – in an event planned for April – the real world with his name. To do this, they'll target celebrities and influencers who command not only the media spotlight, but huge numbers of followers online. So they did.
Cue the inspiring montage of faintly Celtic music, cheering teens, full auditoriums, sweeping helicopter shots, and grateful ululating Africans.
One of the many questions the debacle raised was: Is Mr. Kony, a vile but minor figure, the right target for such global attention?
Alfred Hitchcock coined a movie term that might help answer: A “MacGuffin” is an object of great interest to the characters in the movie, like a stolen briefcase in a spy movie. It doesn't matter what's in the briefcase; it's just an object of desire.
For Invisible Children, Joseph Kony is a MacGuffin. This film tells the viewer that they can create the political conditions for action with the tools they have. It is a seductive message. Mr. Kony just happens to provide a suitable villain.
Whether or not the Kony movement actually creates those conditions or suffocates from overexposure remains to be seen. But its ability to put an item on the agenda has been demonstrated. As profoundly objectionable as some facets of this campaign might be, it will give those who complain about “slacktivism” something to think about.