Attacking Uganda Warlord Goes Viral

Going Viral, Maximizing Impact Without much else going on in their lives, three 20-something guys from San Diego decided to pack some video equipment and go to East Africa. They wanted to shoot something about a 17‑year civil war that had killed 20 million people. Inexperienced about war, not even knowing what to look for, the three found nothing worth recording.

After being stranded unexpectedly one night in a northern Uganda town, the three witnessed something shocking. Thousands of children showed up from the countryside at nightfall. Afraid that rebels would capture them in their villages and kidnap them to be soldiers or sex slaves, they walked dozens of miles every evening for the security of the town. They slept in alleys, parking lots, and hospital hallways. At dawn, feeling safety in daylight, the children vanished into the countryside and trekked back to their villages.

Jason Russell, 24, Bobby Bailey, 21, and Laren Poole, 19, shot video. Through interviews, they learned that a ragtag rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) had terrorized Northern Uganda for years. Although fewer in number, the rebels were feared for their brutality—rape, murder, mutilation, and cannibalism.

The young filmmakers never found the LRA’s leader, the self-proclaimed prophet Joseph Kony. But they heard chilling stories about him and the atrocities he committed primarily against his own people, the Acholi in Northern Uganda, like cutting people’s faces off and making children eat their friends. The young filmmakers knew that the story, little known outside the region, needed to be told. In 2003 they cobbled together a 55-minute documentary that they hoped would rally global attention to end the scourge of the LRA. Not knowing much about how mass media worked however, they had little idea how to go about it, at least not with maximum impact.

The inaugural screening of Invisible Children occurred a year later at the University of San Diego. Over the next couple years, Russell, Bailey, and Poole took the movie on the road, mostly to high schools, churches, and other colleges.

Incredibly, what was happening in Uganda wasn’t on the radar of mainstream media prior to this documentary. After its release in 2005, Kony was indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity, including the abduction of 30,000 children, killing thousands of villagers, some with machetes, and burning some to death in their huts. Despite the indictment, Kony remains at large.

As Russell, Bailey, and Poole booked more screenings, they recognized more needed to be done. They created a nonprofit corporation. Now more organized, the Invisible Children project moved into a higher gear. In time, the organization brought in a New York public relations expert, Ken Sunshine, who had a reputation for promoting celebrities and publicizing events. Once Sunshine was on board, these things then happened:

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