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Linda Davidson (The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Petition politics

Lifestyle | How Change.org uses social media to push its agenda

Issue: "Agony and ecstasy," April 7, 2012

When Planned Parenthood took on the Susan G. Komen Foundation, social media site Change.org played a crucial role. It allowed thousands of activists to sign an online petition demanding that Komen recommit to funding Planned Parenthood. A recent story in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) highlights how activists are using Change.org to pressure governments, companies, and nonprofits to behave in certain ways.

Each time someone signs a Change.org petition, the site sends an email to the offending entity, flooding inboxes and sometimes shutting down servers. Anyone can start a petition, although Change.org chooses to draw particular attention to some petitions and causes: Animal rights and gay rights are two popular categories.

SSIR reported that since Change.org's 2007 founding, 5 million people have joined. Individuals and organizations like the Guggenheim Museum have started more than 25,000 petitions. Change.org provides guidance for writing effective petitions, helps in finding the best email addresses to target, and advises how to use social media-Twitter, Facebook, Skype, blogs-to promote petitions.

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Sometimes Change.org puts its organizational prowess behind a particular petition. For example, last year Change.org sent out a press release drawing attention to a petition aimed at forcing Apple to remove its online iTunes store from the Christian Values Network (CVN), a shopping portal that allowed consumers to send a percentage of an item's purchase price to the charity of their choice. The petition attacked CVN because it allowed consumers to direct money to Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, two groups that the petition referred to as "anti-gay hate groups."

Change.org's press release repeated gay activist attacks on the two Christian groups and bragged that Tom's Shoes and Microsoft had already responded to attacks by cutting connections with CVN. Apple gave in after only 22,000 signatures. Change.org then boasted that REI, Macy's, Delta Air Lines, BBC America, and Wells Fargo had also ended their stores' CVN connections. Meanwhile, CVN changed its name to CGBG, the Charity Gives Back Group.

One current campaign on Change.org: a petition demanding that equal employment opportunity laws forbid discrimination against body modification. (Such laws typically list race, gender, religion, and ethnic origin.) The petition is a collaboration with SoTattooed.com, "the one true tattoo social network." By March 8, 2012, the petition had gathered 75,000 signatures.

Listen to Susan Olasky discuss Change.org on WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It.

Teen repellent

Compound Security Systems/AP

For years retailers and city leaders have used classical music to chase away loiterers and cut crime. That approach works because teenagers and young adults who are most likely to commit crimes tend not to like classical music. In Christchurch, New Zealand; London, England; Portland, Ore.; West Palm Beach, Fla.; and Minneapolis, Minn., police and others have played Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven and broadcast opera at busy transit stations and urban hotspots. They've seen declines in shootings, assaults, drug deals, and robbery.

Schools, parks, and retailers are finding they can get the same result by using a device called the Mosquito. Invented in Wales, the device emits an annoying, high-frequency sound that only people between the ages of 13 and 25 can hear. Older people can't hear it because of the natural hearing loss that occurs with age. One manufacturer of playground equipment bought the rights to incorporate the Mosquito into its equipment so as to keep teens from hanging around and vandalizing playgrounds. High schools are even using it to keep students from congregating in some hallways and courtyards.

Civil-liberties groups in Europe and the UK have protested the device, saying it discriminates against young people. - Susan Olasky

Follow the money

People often check out review websites like yelp.com to find out how other consumers rank different services, restaurants, and shops. Reading through the comments can be illuminating-but it can also be confusing. How do you know if the review is trustworthy? Maybe that positive review came from someone's mother, and the negative review from a competitor.

Tapping into that unease over the trustworthiness of web reviews, Bundle.com offers ratings derived from Citibank credit card data. Bundle says its reviews are generated by people "who don't know that they're generating reviews. They're going about their lives and creating data by using their credit card." Each transaction is like a vote, showing where people actually spend their money.

Bundle.com uses data from billions of anonymous credit card transactions, sorts it by city and category, and updates it weekly to discover which companies get the highest ratings according to three basic measures: how many people go there, how many people come back, and how much they spend. It can paint a picture of the type of people who go to a particular restaurant by seeing where they buy their groceries and shop for clothes or books. -Susan Olasky

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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