Mon, Feb 13, 2012 - Page 9 News List

After recess, go make the world a better place

By Nicholas Kristof  /  NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

A battle between a class of fourth-graders and a major movie studio would seem an unequal fight.

So it proved to be: The studio buckled. And therein lies a story of how new Internet tools are allowing very ordinary people to defeat some of the most powerful corporate and political interests around — by threatening the titans with the online equivalent of a tarring and feathering.

Take Ted Wells’ fourth-grade class in Brookline, Massachusetts. The kids read the Dr Seuss story The Lorax and admired its emphasis on protecting nature, so they were delighted to hear that Universal Studios would be releasing a movie version next month. However, when the kids went to the movie’s Web site, they were crushed that the site seemed to ignore the environmental themes.

So last month they started a petition on Change.org, the go-to site for Web uprisings. They demanded that Universal Studios “let the Lorax speak for the trees.” The petition went viral, quickly gathering more than 57,000 signatures and the studio updated the movie site with the environmental message that the kids had dictated.

“It was exactly what the kids asked for — the kids were through the roof,” Wells said, recalling the celebratory party that the children held during their snack break. “These kids are really feeling the glow of making the world a better place. They’re feeling that power.”

The opportunities for Web naming-and-shaming through Change.org caught my eye when I reported recently on sex traffickers who peddle teenage girls on Backpage.com. I learned that a petition on Change.org had gathered 86,000 signatures calling for the company to stop accepting adult ads.

My next column was about journalists being brutalized in Ethiopian prisons. A 19-year-old college freshman in Idaho, Kelsey Crow, read the column and started a petition to free those journalists — and in no time gathered more than 4,000 signatures.

Does that matter? Does Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi care what a band of cybercitizens thinks of him? Skepticism is warranted, but so far, Change.org petitions have seen some remarkable successes.

Ecuador, for example, used to run a network of “clinics” where lesbians were sometimes abused in the guise of being made heterosexual. A petition denouncing this practice gathered more than 100,000 signatures, leading Ecuador to close the clinics, announce a national advertising campaign against homophobia and appoint a gay-rights activist as health minister.

The masterminds of the successful campaigns are not usually powerful or well connected. Mostly, they just brim with audacity and are on a first-name basis with social media.

Take Molly Katchpole. Last fall, as a 22-year-old nanny living in Washington, she was peeved by a new US$5-a-month fee for debit cards announced by Bank of America, with other banks expected to follow. She took an hour to write a petition, her first.

“After a month it had 306,000 signatures,” Katchpole told me. “That’s when the banks backed down.”

Bank of America and other financial institutions withdrew plans for the fee.

Soon afterward, she started a second petition, protesting a US$2 charge imposed by Verizon for paying certain bills online. In 48 hours, it had attracted more than 160,000 signatures — and Verizon withdrew the fee.

Katchpole parlayed her successes into a job with a new advocacy group, Rebuild the Dream, which seeks to improve the economic well-being of middle-class families.

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