Social Media: The Muscle Behind the Trayvon Martin Movement

Knowledge of the Trayvon Martin case spread slowly at first. But online petitions, plus millions of tweets and Facebook "likes," made the country take notice.

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Mary Altaffer / AP

Demonstrators pray during the Million Hoodie March in Union Square on March 21, 2012 in New York.

Maria Roach couldn’t sleep the morning of St. Patrick’s Day. She was tossing and turning with frustration, her angst focused on a 17-year-old kid from Miami who had been walking on a sidewalk, carrying an Arizona Iced Tea and a bag of Skittles, when he was shot and killed — not by a robber, a malevolant rival or even a police officer, but rather a neighborhood watch volunteer.

What bothered her most is that the kid, Trayvon Martin, who looked like a future version of her 7-year-old son, was killed in Sanford, Fla., not far from the Orlando area where she grew up.

(PHOTOS: Trayvon Martin’s Death Sparks National Outrage, Mourning)

A few hours later, she decided to do something with her stress. She logged on to MoveOn.org, of which she had been a member since 2008,  created a petition through SignOn.org and shared it with her roughly 200 followers on Twitter. “I thought maybe I’d get 100 signatures, and by the end of the day I had 75,” she said. “By Monday morning I had 75,000 and now it’s up to 479,000.”

Roach, who lives in suburban Washington. D.C., was stunned at the response she got. It showed how powerful a tool social media turned out to be in turning a local police case into a viral movement.

To be sure, the most talked about news event of the past week was taken to critical mass by Trayvon’s parents themselves, when they created a petition on March 8 on Change.org. The petition sought the prosecution of George Zimmerman, who fatally shot the teen on Feb. 26. The petition has attracted 1.5 million signatures to date and is expected to be delivered to Florida law enforcement officials on Monday. Since the petitions can easily be attached to Facebook profiles and sent to Twitter accounts, attention exploded in the social media sphere.

(VIDEO: Obama: ‘If I Had a Son, He’d Look Like Trayvon’)

Brianna Bayo-Cotter, Change.org’s communication’s director, says this is their largest online petition drive ever, eclipsing one stemming from the acquittal of Casey Anthony, who had been on trial in the death of her daughter Caylee, and others including support for Troy Davis, who was executed last year.

“Ten years ago people would have read about this in the newspaper, then left it alone feeling sad. Now people can take their outrage and turn it into real action,” says Bayo-Cotter. “It’s really a testiment to the tragedy of this case and the power of social media to draw attention and allow people to have an avenue.”

She says the first week the petition was online, about 100,000 signatures came in as news of the controversy began to spread. But when the 911 recordings, in which neighbors in the gated community described what happened, and a recording of Zimmerman’s exchange with a police dispatcher were released, “that’s when the media paid attention and that’s when we saw unbelievable growth.”

(PHOTOS: Sights and Sounds of the Million Hoodie March)

“We started to see virality that was unprecedented and this quickly became the largest petition ever started [on Change.org].”

On Twitter, there have been more than 600,000 mentions of the case and counting, the Associated Press reported. A single “Justice for Trayvon Martin” Facebook page, created by hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons’ website GlobalGrind.com, has brought in more than 82,000 “likes” alone. Simmons is said to be one of the first major public voices to demand attention for the case.

Social-media watchers call the viral growth regarding Trayvon Martin the “perfect storm.” With a frustrated population that perceives an injustice and an easy platform for expression, it has all the elements needed for a widespread outcome.

“What we’re talking about here is what social scientists refer to as network density and ultimately the network effect,” says Brian Solis, principal analyst at Altimeter Group, a San Mateo-based firm that monitors social media. “Change.org became the repository for focus and for trying to bring about change much the same as Facebook did in uprising in Egypt.”

He says the fact that this movement has become so powerful comes as no surprise, because it has already been demonstrated in other parts of the world like Egypt and in London last year. “[Social media] is the most profound platform that we’ve ever had to do this so quickly and efficiently with such great reach.”

MORE: Blame the Hoodie? Geraldo Under Fire After Martin Comment (Video)

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