The American-based cable and satellite channel MTV is training young people in Southeast Asia to use social media to raise awareness about human trafficking. It is part of a global campaign to end the practice and event organizers and participants say social media amplifies the message. But critics of such campaigns say they have their limitations.
MTV has been working to raise awareness about human trafficking for nearly a decade through concerts, television documentaries and music videos. Now, it is through a campaign known as MTVExit
, it is putting on awareness-raising concerts around the world and training youths how to use Facebook, Twitter and other online platforms to spread the fight against human trafficking.
Last week, 25 young people from around Southeast Asia participated in a four-day workshop where they learned how to link their offline activism to the Internet, increase their number of followers and craft messages about human trafficking to appeal to new audiences.
Putri Damayanti is a youth ambassador from Indonesia, campaigning for MTVExit. “To solve problems you have to make people aware about that issue first, so they will, like, care about these issues and also spread the idea that you could contribute," she said. "And also you could help to solve this problem by just a single click to change the world.”
She says social media is vital in Asia and believes it is the right medium through which to spread a message about human trafficking.
Appealing to youth
Indonesia has one of the world’s most active social media communities, with more than 70 million Facebook and Twitter users combined. People here frequently use social networking sites to advertise a message or campaign for a cause.
But some of MTV’s youth ambassadors come from countries or communities that are less plugged in.
One youth working for a refugee organization, Help Without Frontiers
, along the Thai-Burma border said people there use Facebook, YouTube and Weblogs. But her group still relies on short documentaries and theater to reach target communities, mostly migrant workers who do not have much access to social media.
Critics of social media campaigns say this is one reason they often fail as an empowerment strategy for at risk groups in developing countries.
Author B.J. Mendelson, who wrote the highly critical book "Social Media is Bullshit", explained, "What we’re talking about is trying to reach people who might not be as educated or might not have the latest Apple product that they’re using to access the Web. It’s entirely possible that they can reach people who are in need, I don’t dispute that. What I do dispute is that they can reach a lot of those people because of the socioeconomic issues that are in play.”
Human trafficking, a global problem
Human trafficking is widespread in Southeast Asia. All 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are either origin, transit or destination countries. More than half of the world’s 22 million trafficking victims come through the region.
Officials in ASEAN say they have worked to build member states’ criminal justice systems to go after and prosecute those involved in human trafficking. But they have also realized the need for more education and believe messages like those being spread through social media are one key way of raising awareness.
Khine Myat Chit, is a senior officer in ASEAN’s Security Cooperation Division. “The number of cases are not going down because it is a very high profit, low-cost and human trade, so that’s why we are expanding our focus to include the youth and the public, of course,” noted Chit.
On December 16th, Burma will host its first ever MTVExit concert, headlined by U.S. pop star Jason Mraz. In the run up, organizers are hoping to get one million people to share the mention #EXITslavery, which links to a video about human trafficking.
Spreading the message
On the campaign’s webpage it says all it takes is a click, a share or a post to support the campaign. But critics say online campaigns are often excessively ambitious and are not the proper tool for social organizing because Tweets tend to live online for only a short time.
Although social media can serve as a powerful tool to educate people and raise awareness, Mendelson worries that it has also made people complacent.
“It’s become incredibly difficult to actually get people to do more than click the like button. And, it does curtail the possibility that an online campaign could be as successful as it could because people are now conditioned to just like things and we think that’s the extent of what we need to do to make something happen,” Mendelson stated.
Tara Dermott, the lead developer of MTVExit, says that is why tapping communities of traditional activists who are used to on-the-ground campaigning strengthens the network. “These youth are really focused on the fact that these actions are not supposed to stay online. It’s digital activism that’s really, really closely tied to on the ground action,” she said.
And, although it is difficult to determine whether online activism directly translates into offline action, many of MTVExit’s young ambassadors say it is a step in the right direction.