By Stephanie Siek, CNN
(CNN) – Social media is fueling a rush of publicity and activism around demands for justice in the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager shot last month by a white self-proclaimed neighborhood watchman in Florida. Local police have declined to arrest the watchman, George Zimmerman.
There are more than 50 petitions at Change.org related to Trayvon Martin, according to the activism website’s Communications Director, Brianna Cayo-Cotter. She said the cause is shaping up to be one of the most popular ever hosted on the site.
“By far the largest is the one started by Martin’s mother, and it is one of the most viral campaigns ever,” said Cayo-Cotter. “Our tech team is working round the clock to keep the site from crashing because of the numbers of people coming the site to sign the petition that Trayvon’s mom started.”
Much of that traffic is driven by links to the petitions from social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, Cayo-Cotter said. The #TrayvonMartin hashtag attracted tens of thousands of mentions on Twitter, peaking Tuesday. News organizations’ postings about the contents of 9-1-1 calls from the time of the Feb. 26 shooting have caused interest to pick up further. On Facebook, a group called “Justice For Trayvon Martin” has more than 18,000 “likes.”
“We’re seeing social media become the worldwide megaphone for social injustice,” said Allison Fine, an expert on social media activism and author of “The Networked Nonprofit.” “This kind of incident is very clear cut, right and wrong – it’s egregious, it’s easily sharable… Broadcast media picks it up and social media picks it up and it ping pongs back and forth. Add in a couple of celebrities and you’ve got a social justice tsunami.”
The petition “Prosecute the killer of our son, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin,” was posted March 8th and by 6 p.m. EST Tuesday it had garnered more than 631,000 signatures. The number of signatories has more than doubled since Friday, Cayo-Cotter said. It asks that Florida’s 18th District Attorney, Norman Wolfinger, investigate Martin’s death and prosecute George Zimmerman for his murder. Late Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI both said they would be looking into the case.
Fine said the petition posted by Martin’s family provided a deeply personal layer to the tragedy that compelled people to act.
“People are getting more in the habit of expressing their outrage on social media and doing something about it,” said Fine. “I was just looking at the petition and it is absolutely moving, to see their words and their asking for justice. It’s reaching beyond an advocacy group asking on their behalf.”
But strangers with no connection to the family have also taken their outrage to the web. Another popular petition, on the civic action site SignOn.org, had more than 290,000 signatures by 6 p.m. EST on Tuesday. “Justice for Trayvon Martin,” posted March 17 by Bowie, Md. resident Maria Roach, asks U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to investigate the case.
Roach, a documentary filmmaker, said she was moved to create her petition out of empathy for Martin and his family, but also because she felt his death wasn’t getting enough attention from prosecutors or national media at the time.
“We looked at the pictures of him (Martin) and he looks like our 7-year-old in ten years. I looked at it and tears welled in my eyes,” said Roach. “I pray that the outcome will be justice – justice that the family will take comfort in.”
She used her Twitter and Facebook accounts to spread the word about the petition, sending links to actors like Pam Grier and Tichina Arnold, prominent pastors and civil rights leaders. Progressive activist group MoveOn.org contacted her and asked if they could send links to the petition to their members – “that’s when it really exploded,” Roach said. Later this week she’ll be delivering the petition and its signatures to Holder’s office.