Who is Joseph Kony, and why does it matter?

“Do you know who Joseph Kony is?”

The question was posed to me this week by my 16-year-old daughter, Lauren. Immediately I knew something was up. Lauren delivers everything with a half smirk, which is generally followed by some sarcastic comment. But this time, she was disarmingly serious in her question.

I curbed my knee jerk reaction, which was to respond with an equally sarcastic comeback (genetic testing not required to prove paternity in this particular case) and simply said, “No.”

“I want you to go check out this site – kony2012.com”

I did, and ran into one of the most compelling uses of digital communication I’ve ever seen. So I wanted to use this column to do two things: First, take the time to visit the site. It’s a crash course in effective online communication that any digital marketer could learn from. But secondly, and more importantly, by tomorrow I want you to know who Joseph Kony is. It might be the most important thing you do today.

First of all, let me give you a brief introduction to Mr. Kony. The International Criminal Court in the Hague, Brussels compiled a list of the most wanted criminals in the world. Amongst better-known names like Muammar Khadafy, Joseph Kony had the unfortunate distinction of topping the list.

How do you get to the top of such a list? You form a guerilla army (The Lord’s Resistance Army) in Uganda and kidnap children to act as your foot soldiers. Not just a few children. Tens of thousands of children. You rip boys as young as 8 and 9 away from their homes and parents and force them to kill, torture, maim, rape and pillage, literally at gun point. Often, their first order is to kill their family and friends. You turn their lives into an unimaginable hell where the only avenue of escape seems to be your own death.

And it’s not just boys. Girls are kidnapped as well, forced to become sex slaves. Kony’s army has no cause, no goal, no reason for being. Despite it’s name, it’s unclear what Kony is actually resisting against. The mission of the LRA has apparently gone directly from the mouth of God to the ear of Joseph Kony, but he has neglected to pass it along. The army exists, and the practice of kidnapping children continues solely because the world has allowed it to. In most cases, it’s because the world, like me, has never heard this story. It doesn’t know who Joseph Kony is.

This is where www.kony2012.com comes in. Started by film maker Jason Russell, who has been working to expose Kony for the last 9 years of his life, Kony2012 has a very clear goal. It wants to make Kony famous by the end of this year. It wants to shiny a blindingly bright light on his activities. Russell believes that evil can’t be sustained when the world is watching you. The Arab Spring indicates that Jason Russell is probably right.

The site has a heart breaking 29-minute video, but that alone doesn’t really differentiate it. What is amazing is the way it uses digital communication and social media to help light the fires of fame around Joseph Kony. On the site, there are direct links to the Twitter accounts of 20 celebrities, including Oprah, Mark Zuckerberg and George Clooney, as well as social media links to 12 policy makers and political influencers including Bill Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and John Kerry. Kony 2012 knows that the world of social influence is spanned by only a few degrees of separation and that these influencers, if activated, can bring unwelcome awareness to Kony with brutal efficiency and effect. The degree of digital savviness shown by this site and the movement in general is humbling and inspiring. Of course, it helps to have a compelling story to tell, and the story of Joseph Kony certainly qualifies.

I made my daughter a promise. I would learn who Joseph Kony was. And I would do what I could so others would know him as well. I would try to make Joseph Kony famous.

There are many less important ways to spend 29 minutes of your life.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider March 8, 2012