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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.
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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.

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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.

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