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Civic Media Project

Eric Gordon, Author

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Kony 2012: Using Technology for Empathy

The term empathy has recently been on the minds of philosophers,  neurologists,  health care professionals, ,   social workers,  educators,  , ,  and in the media.   Empathy, though simply defined as one’s ability to comprehend the situation of another, is a complex process of the mind and heart. ,   Findings connect it to a myriad of pro-social outcomes such as helping behavior,  cooperating skills, self-esteem, and civic engagement.   It also has inverse associations with bullying, racism, depression, and aggression.   In education particularly, there has been an emerging focus on building “21st Century Skills,” increasing the spotlight on empathy building in schools. 


These 21st Century Skills require students to cooperate and communicate across cultural lines, to have a command of technology, and to demonstration imaginative problem solving skills, all of which relate to empathy.  They are also represented in the engagement model of Kony 2012 and its parent organization, Invisible Children.   For this reason Invisible Children was a fixture in many schools prior to the release of Kony 2012.  Educators identified Invisible Children’s engagement programs as a way to teach 21st Century skills and empathy.  This viral phenomenon provides an opportunity to examine the opportunities when technology, film, and sound educational pedagogy are used to engage millennials’ empathic potential.



To view Invisible Children and Kony 2012 as an empathic case study, the term “empathy” must be further clarified.  Researchers agree that empathy occurs both intellectually and emotively. ,   This dual-process function combines a neurological reflex (mirror neurons),  and learned skill.   Though some people are born with empathic predispositions, empathy can be fostered intellectually and emotionally.   The tool often used to measure empathy levels is the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI).   The IRI is based on four subscales, two that are cognitive (c) and two emotional (e); imagination (c), perspective taking (c), affective connection (e), and personal distress (e).  These subscales offer the theoretical framework from which to examine the case of Invisible Children and Kony 2012.  Through the use of technology, social media, and film, this organization inadvertently put millennials in an empathic pipeline that aligns with these subscales. 

For most, Kony 2012 was the first experience with Invisible Children, though the decade-old organization has made hundreds of podcasts and films.   The story structure of their film is simple:  a westerner is introduced on-screen; the viewer would affectively connect to him/her.  The westerner would make a connection with a war-affected peer in northern Uganda, and the audience would be gently guided into that connection as well.  This method of reporting and storytelling is not unique, especially for those telling the stories of people in distant places.  In a youtube question and answer session, Nicholas Kristof discusses a “white arc” that he uses to emotionally scaffold his readership into a connection to a far off humanitarian crisis.  Normally, distance is a barrier to empathic connection,  so Invisible Children’s the use of visuals and Kristof’s “arc” help overcome that geographical barrier.  Next, the open sourcing of podcasts, webinars, school assembly and classroom screenings offered a multi-sensory entry point, which was both engaging and easy to virtually share.  This method of story telling helps forge an empathic connection with a world issue that many are overwhelmed by.  In this way an “affective connection” is formed, marking the first step in a viewers’ empathic engagement.  

Invisible Children capitalizes on audiences’ emotional investment to impart the context and the scale of the issue.  The affective connection creates a motivational effect so statistics that might otherwise be boring are now interesting.   The use of animation sequencing, re-enactments, and real-time footage, Invisible Children kept engagement high and compelling, helping viewers through the “perspective-taking” phase of empathy.  After that, the films’ story arc reaches a climaxthe viewer is guided toward a feeling of “personal distress.”  Upon feeling the affective connection to a victim in crisis, gaining an understanding of context and scale (“perspective taking”), audiences begin to sense an urgency of the situation in real time.  At this point viewers are still only partially through an empathy building process.  Viewer empowerment is the next necessary step in that process, and required to set viewers up to engage in “helping behavior” outcomes.  At this point of experiencing “personal distress,” one’s brain seeks relief in one of two ways: constructive action, or avoidance/redirection.  Avoidance often looks like “compassion fatigue” and burn out.   

It is here that Invisible Children’s strategy is to first cast a vision to end the crisis, and then to invite the viewer toward constructive engagement (relieving personal distress).  The empowerment message was made even more effective through the medium of film because a movie literally offers a vision of what can be, igniting the “imagination” aspect of empathy.   Audiences, therefore, are carefully guided through the four clinical requirements of empathy in an artful and pedagogically sound way.  Kony 2012 mirrored this empathic journey, and viewers of the film responded just as empathy research would suggest, by participating in helping behaviors.   Though controversial, this 30-minute film about a remote war was the most shared video in history.  It broke expectations of millennials’ apathetic nature, and gave insight on how to tap into the empathy and desirable pro-social behaviors of this generation. 

This is the empathic pipeline is represented throughout Invisible Children’s overall brand engagement strategy.  After every film or online experience, the audience is individually connected with a peer mentor who can guide them toward customized involvement, and can encourage the empathic process along in a nuanced manner.    Local supporter communities are formed and are connected through online platforms to motivate each other.  Webinars and curriculum enhance their cognitive understanding and perspective of the problem, as well as real time updates on crisis were available through their innovative crisis tracker  (therefore sustainable level urgency, or “personal distress”).  All of these elements combine to positively effect the empathy skills of millennials, and as a bonus, they made it all fun.  



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