“…the right to pursue happiness for so many is stripped away — it’s raped, it’s abused, it’s taken by force, fraud, or coercion. It is sold for the momentary happiness of another.” – Ashton Kutcher, 2017.
While most people know Ashton Kutcher as an actor from television and movies, since 2009, he has also been working with a non-profit foundation he founded with his then-wife, Demi Moore, directed against child sexual slavery.
Originally the DNA Foundation, and now Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children, Kutcher’s organisation helps build technology which assists law enforcement in protecting children from sexual abuse. They also formed a Technology Task Force, bringing over 25 technology companies like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook together to work on software to fight child sexual exploitation.
According to their 2017 impact report, they have assisted law enforcement in identifying 5,894 child sex trafficking victims and rescuing 103 children from dangerous situations. In 2017, Kutcher gave a speech in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, talking about modern day slavery and attempting to compel Congress to act.
We stay talking about Cardi n Nicki and who sells the most albums, but can we start talking about how Ashton Kutcher developed a software to find girls who are being sold into the sex trade? and with this software he has discreetly rescued over 6,000 girls from human trafficking
— Huda ✨ (@idabitxh) August 30, 2018
It is viral tweets like these that have drawn significant attention to Kutcher’s work with Thorn and previous campaigns, and have drawn some criticism.
Firstly, Snopes.com fact-checked the claim in the tweet and got a mixed verdict. They found that the organisations digital tools had helped identify almost 6000 victims of sex trafficking between 2015 and 2017, but had only identified, not exactly rescued 130 child victims.
As well as this, Kutcher often faces criticism for being an actor engaging in charity work, an issue which is well-explored in academic journals as when celebrities do this they can “can detract from learning the solutions that those afflicted by human rights violations would propose for themselves… shifting the focus away from engagement with those most impacted’. Indeed, celebrity advocacy is often crude, reductive and doing more harm than good,” (Steele & Shores 2014, p. 264). While celebrity activism can work to bring issues to the public attention, and provide “information shortcuts for average citizens” (Majic 2017, p. 293) there is a lot of discourse around whether they do more harm than good, as they can “over-simplify issues, detract attention from more committed and knowledgeable local activists, and fail to account for the solutions they propose,” (Majic 2017, p. 294).
In Kutcher’s case, prior to the establishment of Thorn, the DNA foundation did do questionable campaigns in attempts to shed light on the issue of human trafficking, instead promoting “a simplified way to move forward, in an attempt mainly to engage the public at a broad level. The result was to promote ‘slactivism’, wherein unengaged individuals click a button or buy a bracelet, promoting a cause, but do not robustly engage with the issue or best practices of the criminal justice system,” (Steele & Shores 2014, p.266).
However, the software developed by Thorn is implemented by 1,430 law enforcement agencies throughout the United States and Canada, and has been used in over 21,000 investigations, so it does have a practical use and positive benefits. And Kutcher is clearly passionate about the issue and the activism he engages in through the charity, as witnessed in the speech to Congress.
Majic, S 2017, ‘Real men set norms? Anti-trafficking campaigns and the limits of celebrity norm entrepreneurship’, Crime Media Culture, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 289-309, <http://journals.sagepub.com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/doi/pdf/10.1177/1741659017714518>
Steele, S & Shores, T 2014, ‘More than just a famous face: Exploring the rise of the celebrity expert-advocate through anti-trafficking action by the Demi and Ashton Foundation’, Crime Media Culture, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 259-272, <http://journals.sagepub.com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/doi/pdf/10.1177/1741659014558434>