Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

In praise of 'slacktivism'

By John D. Sutter, CNN
April 12, 2013 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
<a href='http://enditmovement.com/' target='_blank'>The END IT movement</a> asked people to raise awareness about modern-day slavery on April 9 by drawing a red X on their hands. "END IT is starting the conversation around the globe," says <a href='http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-953401'>Ken Sirmans</a>, the director of student life at Loganville Christian Academy. The END IT movement asked people to raise awareness about modern-day slavery on April 9 by drawing a red X on their hands. "END IT is starting the conversation around the globe," says Ken Sirmans, the director of student life at Loganville Christian Academy.
HIDE CAPTION
END IT movement shines light on slavery
END IT movement shines light on slavery
END IT movement shines light on slavery
END IT movement shines light on slavery
END IT movement shines light on slavery
END IT movement shines light on slavery
END IT movement shines light on slavery
END IT movement shines light on slavery
END IT movement shines light on slavery
END IT movement shines light on slavery
END IT movement shines light on slavery
END IT movement shines light on slavery
END IT movement shines light on slavery
END IT movement shines light on slavery
END IT movement shines light on slavery
END IT movement shines light on slavery
END IT movement shines light on slavery
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The END IT movement is drawing attention to modern slavery
  • An estimated 27 million people are enslaved today
  • John Sutter: Their online efforts could be disparaged as "slacktivism"
  • He says their online campaigns, however, have led to real-world change

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a human rights and social change columnist at CNN Opinion. E-mail him at CTL@CNN.com or follow him on Twitter (@jdsutter), Facebook or Google+.

(CNN) -- If you don't spend much time online, and if you're older than most college students, you may have missed the thousands of teens and 20-somethings who were running around the country this week with red "X" marks on their hands.

No, they didn't go clubbing last night.

They're trying to end slavery.

It's OK if those things seem wildly unconnected at first. The gap between drawing a mark on your hand and preventing a woman in Nepal, Mozambique or New Jersey from being sold into the sex trafficking business, or liberating one of the estimated 20 to 30 million people who are enslaved today, is admittedly a large one.

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter
Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



And, because of that, the END IT movement, which organized the recent online-plus-real-world campaign, has gotten some heat from some laptop cynics who say their efforts aren't making a real, tangible difference in the big-sad-real world.

"It's almost offensive how stupid this #endit movement is," one person wrote on Twitter. "These red x's in people's hands aren't freeing any slaves. All these pictures are just annoying me. #enough #endit," said another.

But I say forget all that.

Slapping a red "X" on your hand and uploading a photo of it to Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #enditmovement (as tens of thousands have done) can help end slavery.

It's not going to happen right away, of course.

But it's the first step.

"Nothing happens just because we are aware of modern-day slavery," the group says on its website, "but nothing will EVER happen until we are."

Amen, brothers and sisters.

The debate over the merits of these sorts of online awareness raising campaigns, sometimes referred to as "slacktivism" or "clicktivism," is getting tired.

It seems to have started in 2009, when Twitter users made their avatars green in support of anti-regime protests in Iran. That social media campaign succeeded, but the protests, of course, failed. Shortly after, The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell proclaimed that "the revolution would not be tweeted" because the Internet's "weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism," which is needed in order to spur real change.

Those ideas resurfaced last month when the U.S. Supreme Court was hearing two same-sex marriage cases. The Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group, asked Facebook and Twitter users to change their public profile images to a red equals sign, in support of marriage equality.

Millions of people made the switch. But some writers, including Brian Moylan from VICE, argued that this one-click symbolic action was "completely useless."

"Yes, the show of support is heartwarming. It's nice to see so many people who want their gay friends to be spoiled brides just like all their straight friends, but you're not doing anything," he wrote on Vice.com. "This is just another form of passive activism that isn't advancing the cause. Do you know what would be helpful? Actually picking up a sign, heading down to the Supreme Court and joining the throngs of protesters. Do you know what would be useful? Instead of just downloading an image and clicking a few buttons, going to the website of a gay rights organization (or any gay organization for that matter) and giving them some money so they can fight for gay civil rights on your behalf."

He also suggested that the slacktivists write letters to representatives.

Both writers make good points, but their arguments shouldn't be used to condemn efforts to raise awareness about pressing social issues. And they discount the real good that these social media efforts can and do have. The evidence is incomplete, but I'd bet that "completely useless" Human Rights Campaign equals-sign demonstration led people to do exactly all the things that Moylan suggests would be more valuable than clicking a button on Facebook.

"I don't have hard data, but we definitely saw an increase in donations through our website," said Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesman for Human Rights Campaign. "In fact, our site crashed on Wednesday (March 27) from all of the traffic. I think that, anecdotally, there is reason to suggest it has helped from a fundraising perspective, and I think there's a larger social good from the visibility."

On the "larger good" point, Cole-Schwartz mentioned a message Human Rights Campaign received from a man who said his mom's first show of support for him as an openly gay person was to change her Facebook profile image to the red equals sign. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, from Montana, announced his public support for marriage equality by making the change on Facebook. And, Cole-Schwartz said, there is the likely possibility that closeted gay kids were comforted when they saw the flood of digital support for gay rights.

Similarly, real-world action has accompanied the END IT movement's red "X" campaign. The group, which funded its activities with donations it collected from college kids at the Christian-themed Passion conference in January, has raised more than $200,000 for several anti-slavery organizations. All of that money went to noble nonprofits, not to the END IT movement itself, said Bryson Vogeltanz, the group's "chief steward."

Students at about 2,000 U.S. colleges and universities have "done something" in response to the campaign, which began in February and culminated on Tuesday with the red "X" project online, Vogeltanz told me.

The Polaris Project, the group that runs an anti-trafficking hot line, says its call volume was up 65% in January, to 2,850 calls, in part because that's when the END IT movement launched at the Christian youth conference. Megan Fowler, a spokesman for the Polaris Project, said calls were up this week, too, although it's harder to tease out the source, because the group on Tuesday announced a partnership with Google to create the Global Human Trafficking Hotline Network.

And, most tellingly, a young woman in Texas, Vogeltanz told me, was rescued from sex trafficking because someone who had heard about the END IT movement questioned whether she was in trouble. Her family thought she had run away from home, he said.

None of that sounds like slacking to me.

If you want to help end modern slavery, I'd encourage you to visit the "action" section of the END IT movement's website and also CNN's Freedom Project blog. We have a list of reputable nonprofit groups, both internationally and listed by country.

There also is a list of anti-trafficking hot lines around the world; a guide to help parents and educators figure out how to talk to kids about slavery; and a list of signs that a person may be the victim of human trafficking.

The Polaris Project also recently created a texting feature, in part to help people who are victims of sex trafficking or slavery. People who are in trouble, or who suspect they have witnessed trafficking, can text "help" to "BEFREE" (233733).

If you have other ideas, please share them in the comments below.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of John D. Sutter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT