Pushing the Limits: A Look at ACLU and PETA

November 12, 2009Sparxoo

By Ethan Lyon, Senior Writer

In 1981, Alex Pacheco conducted an undercover investigation at the Institute of Behavioral Research in Silver Spring Maryland. There he photographed the “dire” conditions many of the animals were living in. After he gathered sufficient evidence, he turned the images over to the police who then raided the lab — leading to the arrest and conviction of researcher, Dr. Edward Taub.

It was during this event that the world first heard of the organization behind the controversy, PETA. Since then, PETA has graced the headlines on many occasions: “Nude PETA Women Shower at 7th and Penn.” and “PETA profits from animal suffering” are only a few of the headlines that define the animal rights organization’s marketing strategy.

PETA has been criticized for comparing animal cruelty to the Holocaust, euthanizing animals and staging elaborate demonstrations. Scientists, in particular, disapprove of PETA’s extreme stance because “most life-saving procedures and medications in use today…would not have been possible without the ability to conduct prior research and training in animals,” said John Howser, deputy director, Office of News & Public Affairs for Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

In our Digital Influence in Social Cause Report, we were surprised PETA exerted so much influence. The animal rights organization ranked #2 on our digital influencer list. We found many controversial organizations, such as the ACLU and Greenpeace, have generated a large core following. How do organizations surrounded with such intense controversy become a top digital influencers?

Organizations like PETA and the ACLU take a firm stance and bend the law on several occasions — often making news headlines. In many ways they polarize audiences by distributing emotionally charged information or backing controversial groups. It’s a very “you’re with us, or you’re against us” mentality and as such, they have grown strong followings.

Consider how the ACLU has stirred the pot. They often take a controversial stance when it comes to free speech. Their most notable clients are extremist groups like the Neo-Nazis and pro-terrorists, organizations like North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) and even teenage exhibitionists. “Left-wing groups like the ACLU too often equate constitutional rights for their clients with there being no consequences for their clients’ actions – whether for their teenage exhibitionist clients or for their far more dangerous terrorist suspect clients,” writes Joseph Klein, from the NewsReal blog. This dedication to the preservation of speech has created a fierce criticism of the organization. However, such polarizing issues have created a core group following of the organization. They boast over half a million supporters.

As we’ve noted, PETA does not shy away from controversy. In fact they welcome it. According to Newssift — a sentiment analysis tool — more than half of PETA’s mentions in the media are negative, while less than a quarter is positive. It’s no surprise that much of this heat derives from newspaper headlines. With numerous elaborate demonstrations and civil justice actions, PETA graces newspaper headlines more often than blogs or magazines.

Other organizations follow a similar PR strategy. Greenpeace, though the organization takes a non-violent approach, ranks #4 in digital influence. Though Greenpeace takes a passive approach, the environmental organization has more negative sentiment than PETA. While PETA has 1,143 negative articles, Greenpeace takes the cake with 2,852 articles, followed by the ACLU (#12) with 2,575 negative articles. Such media attention shapea public opinion and defines these organizations.

Though we do not endorse taking the law into your own hands, there is something to be said about taking a stance and drawing a line in the sand. According to our digital influencer study, rallying your followers to get involved and taking an emotional investment into your cause is a valuable asset. PETA, Greenpeace and the ACLU are examples of how stirring the emotional pot — whether it’s sit-ins or nude protests — can command attention and consequently gain the support of a loyal following.

Download the full PDF report

Image by Jenny Sliwinski from Stock.Xchng