Using Petitions to Create Social Change

The buzzword this week in class was “grass-roots.” It’s a word we throw around a lot in the International Communications program, but what does it really mean? According to, grass-roots is defined as “the common or ordinary people, especially as contrasted with the leadership or elite of a political party, social organization, etc.; the rank and file.” We often use the term to refer to an organization or movement that has been started by ordinary people, creating change from the bottom up instead of the usual top down.

So what is the role of grass-roots in the world of communications? There is an interesting dichotomy in the communications world today. On one hand, much of communications today is controlled by major corporations like Disney, GE (owners of NBC), or Comcast. On the other hand, anyone with internet access can start a blog or twitter feed in hopes that someone out there will read it. But with all the competition out there for the media consumer’s attention, how can you make your voice heard to people outside your friends and family? And how about if you are not just wanting to share vacation photos or recipes, but to create real social change?

I had all these thoughts about our classwork swirling about in my head when a WaPo (Washington Post) tweet in my twitter feed Sunday morning caught my eye. It posited the question, “What do Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sesame Street and JC Penny [sic] have in common?” Who can resist a teaser like that? The link in the tweet led me to an article titled “ fuels grass-roots campaigns with social media. The article talks about what we can call grass-root campaigns waged through the website, a website which provides “free online petition tools for social change.”

Some of the petitions have fulfilled their goal of making a difference. For instance, the petition for Caylee’s Law, a proposed law based on the Casey Anthony trial which would require parents to report a child as missing within 24 hours, received over one million signatures and led 22 lawmakers to support the proposal. Another campaign, which had over 100,000 signatories in 150 countries, persuaded an initially reluctant Hillary Clinton to speak out against the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia. Other proposals, such as gay rights activists’ campaign for Sesame Street residents Bert and Ernie to get married, have been shot down (Children’s Television Workshop insists they are just friends and roommates, okay?!). Still, whether a campaign succeeds or not, it seems that corporations and governments are paying attention to what the ordinary person has to say (…if enough people are saying it).



2 thoughts on “Using Petitions to Create Social Change

  1. The use of social media as a way to make a change in the world is definitely something new to society today. Tory, I agree with your point that if enough people are saying something, then corporations and governments do pay attention. The examples you give are evidence of that.

    But, while reading your post, I was struck with a thought. The examples that are the most successful are often ones that have been covered by the media already. For instance, Caylee’s Law was fresh in everyone’s mind from watching all of the coverage about the Casey Anthony trial. What about causes that haven’t and quite possibly won’t make national headlines? Would corporations and governments listen to these concerns the same way?


  2. I definitely agree with both of you… that often the movements that get the most attention are the ones that the media is covering. I feel like governments and corporations don’t have the same amount of pressure to react to grassroots movements and petitions that aren’t heavily portrayed in the media. Sure, 90,000 people might want something and that is a lot of people, but how important is it that the government react if the other 300 million in the US know nothing about it?

    Randomly, I got a petition in my email today that I haven’t heard about at all in the media yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we do soon. I thought it was particularly interesting to most of us as grad students… it’s a petition to forgive all federal student loans as a way to stimulate our economy, instead of raising taxes or cutting spending. I’m not entirely sure it’s very realistic, but it’s nice to think about! And this afternoon when I first looked there were about 80,000 signatures and now there are 160,000.

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