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How a plan to make Joseph Kony famous changed our world

A week ago many people had never heard of a man named Joseph Kony; and now he may be one of the most famous people on the planet. However, Joseph Kony isn’t a breakout point guard, a genre-stretching musician or even a politician – he’s a ruthless terrorist, the leader of The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). And now he has been removed from a veil of anonymity by a group called Invisible Children and the power of social media.

Kony is wanted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court thanks to his practice of abducting children and forcing them into his rebel army which is responsible for the brutal slaughter of villages across Uganda, the Congo and Sudan.

Last year, thanks to a bipartisan effort, the U.S. began providing expert advisors to the Ugandan army with the aim of helping to finally eradicate the LRA.

This week, an organization on the forefront of this movement, Invisible Children, came up with a seemingly simple, but effective solution to finally catch one of the world’s most wanted criminals.

The strategy: Make Joseph Kony famous around the world and then provide Uganda with the resources to wipe out this blight on their country.

Here’s how it worked: We’re all aware of the media crush that surrounds global superstars. Musicians, athletes, actors and others that have caught the rocket ride to global notoriety often bemoan their loss of privacy or inability to perform acts as mundane as going out to dinner or getting a haircut without causing a scene. 

While fame something typically sought by people the world over, Invisible Children created a new template – it decided to use the global community of the Internet via social media to shine a spotlight on those who are in hiding. In other words people like Joseph Kony who are trying to run from fame and the notoriety that comes with it.

Like famous people whose faces are recognized all over the world, (think President Obama, Tim Tebow or Taylor Swift), the infamous Joseph Kony is now “famous.” 

The group hopes that Kony will now face the same instant recognition for his actions as global celebrities and, we can only hope, finally be brought to justice.

This week, the world witnessed something new as Invisible Children introduced an action plan that allowed average citizens to play a role in bring this plan to fruition.

They began by posting their short film, “Kony 2012” on the Internet. Then they asked viewers, using social media, to spread the world on social networks, especially Twitter.

It worked. 

The film has gone viral around the globe. As of this writing it’s gotten almost 60 million views.

Celebrities and politicians joined the campaign to spread the word.

For two full days this week, #stopkony was the top trending topic worldwide on Twitter, even outpacing Peyton Manning and the new iPad.

The response and widespread circulation of the film was nothing short of a benchmark for all future publicity campaigns.

My admiration for the efforts of Invisible Children goes beyond professional respect. While it’s true that they have fundamentally changed how social media will be used in the future, it’s also a very personal campaign.

My wife and I started working with IC six years ago, when I recognized one of the filmmakers as a high school classmate.

I distinctly remember the first time I visited their offices and was shocked to see newly minted college graduates sitting three to a desk, powered by the passion and conviction of the cause.

In the last six years, IC has grown to take an active role in improving the situation the ground in Uganda – rebuilding schools, installing an early detection system for LRA raids and raising awareness on Capitol Hill and doing so with such fervor that even the most jaded Beltway operative couldn’t help but want to help.

It’s not surprising that the runaway success of the Stop Kony effort has attracted its share of critics this week. Some have said that the group’s focus is too narrow, while others have questioned their financial stewardship.

To be clear, Invisible Children has always been completely transparent – even go so far as to publish five years worth of their audited financial returns online.

Moreover, regardless of whether Joseph Kony is in Uganda, the Congo or has fled elsewhere, his presence remains a threat to the African continent. More importantly, those who have been tortured, raped or murdered by his armies deserve justice.

The spirit of Invisible Children’s mission is probably best explained by these famous words from Robert F. Kennedy who said, “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

By using social media to bring the story of Joseph Kony into conversations around the world, the Stop Kony movement provides a blueprint not only for advocacy but justice.

The Internet has made our the world smaller. By connecting us via Twitter, Facebook and online forums – we learned a valuable lesson from IC this week. It’s now possible to make the world safer using the global social media community to shine a spotlight on injustice and bring a voice to the weak.

Joe Brettell is a Public Relations consultant based in Virginia. He has served as an unpaid advisor to Invisible Children for the past several years.