Since three young filmmakers first traveled to Uganda in 2003, they have been determined to use film and activism to help stop the rebel leader Joseph Kony's brutal tactics and the use of children as soldiers. But it was not until this week that their nonprofit organization, Invisible Children, helped make Mr. Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, a household name.
Or at least a name that tens of millions of mostly young people using social media platforms are now familiar with.
In just four days, as The Times's Josh Kron and J. David Goodman report, Invisible Children's 30-minute documentary film has rocketed around the Web, garnering more than 40 million views on YouTube and more than 13 million on Vimeo since it was launched on Monday. It has been shared all over Facebook and mentioned tens of thousands of times on Twitter.
Isaac Hepworth, who works for Twitter, created this chart showing how the conversation exploded.
How did "Kony 2012″ go viral so quickly?
Invisible Children, which has already produced 11 films over the years and has brought its case to college students around the country, had a strong base of followers to begin with on Facebook, Twitter and its YouTube channel.
In addition to using social media tools to help distribute the film, Jason Russell, the film's director and narrator, talks in the film about how social media is empowering people all over the world to bring about change. He then asks viewers to join him in this campaign to capture Mr. Kony after describing his friendship with one of Mr. Kony's victims and then sharing a compelling narrative about how he became involved in this effort.
In the film, Mr. Russell explains the social media strategy, which includes getting people to enlist celebrities on Twitter, including Oprah Winfrey and others with large followings, to help get out the word about the film and Mr. Kony. The group also specifically asked people who viewed the film to share it with their personal networks on social media platforms so that "Kony's name is everywhere."
This call to action, Mr. Russell explained, would help achieve the group's goal of raising awareness about Mr. Kony in the hope it might keep pressure on Ugandan government officials and United States advisers who are trying to help them find Mr. Kony, who has fled the country, and arrest him by the end of the year. "In order for people to care, they have to know," he said.Here's the group's first March 5 post on Twitter about the film.
With more than 180,000 followers, the Twitter account for the 2012 Vans Warped Tour was one of the first accounts with large followings to share the link.
Invisible Children: Premiere KONY 2012 understanding that where you live shouldn't determine whether you live. ow.ly/9sQkd-- VansWarpedTour (@VansWarpedTour) March 5, 2012
Soon, celebrities from the film and music worlds, including Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Diddy, Alec Baldwin and Olivia Wilde were joining in and posting links to the film on Facebook and Twitter. Many did so at the urging of their fans. And the hashtags #kony2012 #stopkony began to trend worldwide on Twitter.
On Tuesday, the group got a huge boost when Ms. Winfrey began talking about the film by thanking her followers for alerting her to it and noting that she had been involved with Invisible Children and the issue for years.
She continued discussing it on Twitter for the next couple of days, including talking about getting the organizers behind Invisible Children on television and admiring them for staying with the problem all these years when some of her followers questioned why they were raising it now.On Wednesday, more celebrities, including Ryan Seacrest, posted a link to the film on Twitter.
After several people contacted Justin Bieber, he retweeted their posts and published his own post to his more than 18 million followers on Twitter.
Kim Kardashian, with her more than 13 million followers, also jumped into the conversation.
And the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said President Obama extended congratulations to the people who mobilized to promote a viral Web video about the atrocities carried out by the Lord's Resistance Army.
But the highly successful campaign has also generated a social media backlash and serious questions from scholars about whether Invisible Children oversimplified its message to get people engaged.
A 19-year-old college student from Nova Scotia created a blog on Tumblr called Visible Children, questioning Invisible Children's charitable spending practices. It noted that only 32 percent of the $8 million the organization spent last year went to direct services.
Invisible Children struck back, defending its practices in a statement.
But Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT asked questions on his blog about whether Mr. Russell's approach to simplify the story about Mr. Kony could make matters worse in Uganda and parts of central Africa. "The problem, of course, is that this narrative is too simple," Mr. Zuckerman wrote. "The theory of change it advocates is unlikely to work, and it's unclear if the goal of eliminating Kony should still be a top priority in stabilizing and rebuilding northern Uganda. By offering support to Museveni, the campaign may end up strengthening a leader with a terrible track record."
In Foreign Policy magazine, Joshua Keating also noted that the situation in central Africa was more complex than Mr. Russell had presented, including the fact that Mr. Kony is no longer in Uganda, making it even more difficult to arrest him. He also writes: "It would be great to get rid of Kony. He and his forces have left a path of abductions and mass murder in their wake for over 20 years. But let's get two things straight: 1) Joseph Kony is not in Uganda and hasn't been for 6 years; 2) the LRA now numbers at most in the hundreds, and while it is still causing immense suffering, it is unclear how millions of well-meaning but misinformed people are going to help deal with the more complicated reality."
Meanwhile, the numbers of views for the film continued to climb. On Thursday night, Invisible Children posted an update about plans to extend its reach around the world.