My current sociological research looks at the way millennials and digital natives (the subsequent generational cohort) use social media to construct identity in their everyday lives. One of the questions that I asked over the course of my ethnography was “Have you ever participated in a social issue campaign beyond reposting or retweeting about it on social media? If so, in what ways?” Overwhelmingly, the response was “No, I usually just retweet or repost it.”
I believe whole-heartedly in the power of awareness but as Mark Warren, the author of Fire in the Heart How White Activists Embrace Racial Justice puts it, “If we stop at moral impulse, we are left with altruism.”
Why the ❌? We know awareness won't end modern-day slavery, but we believe without it, modern-day slavery will never end. #enditmovement
— ❌ END IT (@enditmovement) February 27, 2014
The leaders of the End It movement seem to understand this on a rudimentary level but the same cannot be said about all of their followers and supporters. When I saw the red x’s on several of my students’ hands, I asked them about it. I said, “What type of slavery?” “Where is this slavery taking place?” “What can I do personally?” No one could reasonably answer any of those questions. When I asked, “Did you, or are you going to, donate money?” one person responded, “The hope is that people will eventually donate money.” “Where will the money go? What will they do with it?” My questions remained unanswered. They could only tell me that the red x’s were supposed to cause people to ask questions so that they could spread the word about world-wide slavery. When I asked questions, the message of freedom was not explained very thoroughly at all. Uninformed awareness is just as bad as unawareness itself.
This is a trend that I see in many social issue campaigns that take place on and through the aid of social media. While the so-called freedom fighters are undoubtedly well-intentioned, I see several issues with the way the message is constructed as well as with the proposed solutions. Beyond the social construction of the movement being somewhat lofty and ungrounded, I fear that the initiators of these types movements are merely banking on the other-directed vulnerability of millennials and digital natives. Social psychologists Wang, Tchernev, and Solloway cite users’ need to mitigate their self- image and the need to be affirmed by their peers, amongst two of the four main reasons why users engage with social media. Social media allows users to fulfill these needs as often as they want. Additionally, Quinn and Oldmeadow found that social media use by younger users helps ease the tensions that can be present during major transitional periods in life. Anyone with the right formula could amass a large following not because the people truly believed in the cause, but due to the nature of social media.
Beyond the primary issue with social media movements, I was underwhelmed with the lack of information I was presented with on the home page. The white savior narrative is prevalent and problematic and is reified throughout the page. Let me be clear, there is significant value in people of every race and nationality participating in a cause that is valid however there is a problem with the way the people are depicted on the site and on the Twitter feed. In the promotional video, the camera quickly pans over the people who are portrayed as either currently trapped in some sort of slavery or are survivors of it. The message is unclear. Again it is not the whiteness that I see as problematic, it is the underrepresentation of the people that the movement is trying to help. Where are these people? Why aren’t their voices heard most loudly and clearly? Visitors must go to the very last tab in the list – the “learn” tab, to watch the longer video which allows the audience to hear from persons who were formerly enslaved.
Enditmovement.com presents a dominant narrative instead of taking on a supporting role in the goal of liberation. Further, it does not do an adequate job of informing visitors about the roots of slavery and perhaps unintentionally hides the real issues at hand. The United States is one of the greatest catalysts of sex-slavery. The United States accounts for a large portion of the 32 billion dollars generated by sex slavery. The United Nations states that the U.S. is amongst the most common destinations for sex trafficking. We are producers of the enslavement that this movement is trying to fight. Though users can find this information on the site if they search for it, this information is vital to our understanding of this type of slavery and it is completely missing from the home page.
What is not missing, however, is the blatant consumerism. The tabs that allow you to learn more about the organizations who are being supported are neatly nested at the bottom of the page. Instead, upon a first encounter with the page, visitors are encouraged to visit the store to buy the gear and “be the billboard”. A lot of digging must be done to find the “slavery facts”. The average user is not very likely to go to the “learn” tab. Once found, the research is valid and points to a substantial problem in our global society. It also includes a list of sources and suggested readings however my students seemed to have missed the mark and settled for being aware but uneducated. I fear that this is the case for a majority of the red x bearers.
Perhaps the End It movement could be as powerful as it aims to be if it were to take on Gideon Sjoberg’s countersystem approach. “A countersystem analyst consciously tries to step outside of her or his own society in order to better view and critically asses it. … These critical social thinkers support the action of human beings in their own liberation” (Quoted in Feagin and Vera 2008:2).
As a Christian sociologist, I often find myself at an impasse. I strive to love people in my daily life and I recognize the desire to be a part of something that is bigger than one’s self. I do see validity in the core purpose of the #enditmovement. However my grounding in sociology makes it easy for me to see through the inauthenticity that can exist in “viral” movements on social media. I want to call everyone who believes themselves to be passionate about the liberation of all enslaved or marginalized peoples – religious or not – to inform yourself and others about the facts. Then use your knowledge to act beyond the confines of the screen.
Guest blogger Apryl Williams is a sociology graduate student at Texas A&M University.