Last week, the Huffington Post reported that Change.org, long regarded as a progressive organization, would begin accepting sponsored petitions from conservative organizations and businesses. The new policy marks a dramatic shift for the company, which previously claimed in its advertising guidelines that the organization only “accept[s] sponsored campaigns from organizations fighting for the public good and the common values we hold dear—fairness, equality, and justice.”
Now the company that once stated that it did not run sponsored petitions from parties that violate their values will welcome petitions from the very organizations that do, giving anti-choice organizations, astroturf groups, corporations, pro-gun groups, and political parties access to an international activist community of millions.
Change.org is an online petition site founded in 2007 by Ben Rattray. Individuals around the world can use Change.org tools to create free petitions advocating for causes. Sponsors can also pay to host a petition on the site, in exchange for the email addresses of those who sign their petition. The company is home to some of the best online organizers in the world, and they’ve racked up serious victories in five short years—including a petition that successfully pressured Bank of America to drop their five dollar debit card fee, and a 13-year-old’s petition aimed at Seventeen magazine which forced editors to re-evaluate their Photoshop policies.
For the most part, Change.org’s victories have been progressive ones. Protecting women who call out their rapists, demanding justice for Trayvon Martin, looking out for Apple workers in China—these have been noble victories that challenged our ideas of what online petitions can do. However, the company now plans to extend that transformative power to organizations fighting for people and companies previously on the receiving end of Change.org petitions, while claiming that they have never said they were a progressive company.
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Internal documents leaked by a Change.org staffer who has since been fired from the company explain that Change.org’s new “openness policy” is a result of a rapidly expanding company trying to keep up with demand. Previously, Change.org vetted petitions to ensure each petition and organization aligned with their values. A “Frequently Asked Questions” document notes that Change.org “will soon have thousands of advertisers, and is [sic] would be impossible to scaleably investigate the organizations behind all of these petitions.” The FAQ document adds, “By rejecting some advertisers because we disagree with them, we’d be implicitly endorsing those we accept and exposing ourselves to daily attacks from people who don’t think certain advertisers fit within a set of values.”
The shift comes as Change.org continues to expand internationally, where, the group claims, progressive values don’t always translate. It also appears to be a response to controversy that erupted this summer, when Change.org received significant blowback for running petitions for anti-labor organizations Students First and Stand for Children.
Raven Brooks, Executive Director of Netroots Nation, believes the policy reversal will happen in two phases. In an interview, he told Rewire, “Corporate front groups will be the first things we’ll see [on the site], since they already have an existing model with Michelle Rhee’s group, Students First. The next phase will be going after conservative issue areas – but first, Change.org has to get those people into their system so they can advertise to them.”
Despite requests from Rewire, Change.org declined to comment for this article, stating that their communications staffers were instead focusing on promoting high-profile petition campaigns on the site. Change.org’s Director of Strategic Partnerships, Matt Slutsky, pointed me to a message he posted to the listserv Progressive Exchange in response to an email thread about the policy change. In it, Slutsky writes:
We believe our impact on the world will be greater if we’re an open platform than if we’re an agenda-driven organization. This is pretty unique and in some cases different from the organizations represented on [Progressive Exchange], and it can also be difficult as openness means that some people many of us personally disagree with are able to launch campaigns on our site. That said, our petition platform is, and always has been, open to anyone to start a petition on whatever they care about. That’s what defines our organization and it’s the core component of our work.
He also noted the company is working on personalization technology to target petitions to certain people (and hide them from others), so if you sign a petition in support of Trayvon Martin, you likely won’t be asked to also sign a petition for the NRA.
The misgivings Slutsky acknowledges in his email to Progressive Exchange are echoed in internal emails to Change.org staff, some of who undoubtedly are also uncomfortable with the change. “For some of you, this vision won’t feel like a shift at all. For others, it might seem like a big re-framing of who we are,” Change.org CEO Ben Rattray wrote in an email to staff in July of this year. Possibly anticipating as much external turmoil as internal turmoil, the company planned to quietly roll out these changes without notice to the advocacy community.
Progressive advocates aren’t buying the new policies.
“I would argue that the founder of Change.org is clearly not attempting to further progress, but is attempting to further his income,” says Shelley Abrams, a Virginia activist who founded Cooch Watch 2012, in an interview with Rewire.
He started the site with one agenda, and is now changing that agenda. But don’t try to tell me you are still trying to be an agent for progressive change. That is clearly bullshit.
Rattray’s own words in an internal email to staff posted by Aaron Krager and shared publiclyare telling. “While our mission to maximize our positive impact in the world is our guiding light, it’s not why we’re having such influence,” he writes. “The reason for our impact, and what makes us unique and potentially transformative, is our strategy: empowerment.” Brooks believes that’s exactly the problem.
“I believe in movement infrastructure and competitive advantage. Where [conservatives] excel is money, and they’ve got a media infrastructure that’s second to none,” he admits. “But on our side, our strength has been people and creativity. Technology supports, extends, and expands those things… and it’s not in anyone’s interest to give them a hand in that.”
Abrams has seen this firsthand, as right-wing groups in Virginia are frequently co-opting her group’s ideas in support of their own missions. But she notes that they’re rarely able to use them as effectively as her group has.
“That’s because there is an agile mindset to progressivism that obviously un-progressive groups do not have. Progressivists are about changing (for the better) and non-progressive groups are about stagnation,” she wrote in an email. But as we’ve seen with astroturf groups and SuperPACs, it’s all too easy to bend a conservative message to fit a progressive-sounding mold. Change.org’s new policy of openness doesn’t provide a safeguard for that.
But will Change.org’s move affect progressive advocacy? Abrams, who prefers on-the-ground activism to online petitions, says the move “reeks of selling out… [But] is it the end of the movement if they sell out? No.” After consideration, Brooks believes the loss of Change.org as a progressive advocacy platform is a small one. He pointed to SignOn.org, a similar site created by MoveOn.org, and Care2, as alternatives to Change.org, and believes this policy change will open up more competition for online advocacy platforms. Still, he says, “we’re losing a great team of campaigners.”
That loss has hit the progressive community hard. Brooks says Netroots Nation activists and other progressives on listservs he follows are “pretty universally upset and betrayed.” Brooks has already heard of listserv managers expunging Change.org subscribers from their lists, and nonprofits dropping their contracts with the company.
Others believe that empowering former enemies stands in the way of progressive causes’ progress. Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food and Water Watch, which previously hosted paid petitions on Change.org, wrote in a blog post Wednesday, “We don’t want to see climate change deniers empowered. We have worked with Change.org to empower people with a vision of a better world that is economically and socially equitable and where the environment is protected.”
Hauter continued, “Even after talking with Ben [Rattray], I get the impression that their decision comes down to increasing their size and reach…. We’re disappointed that Change.org has apparently decided that profit trumps progressive values. I think Change.org has become confused about what kind of change we want and what democracy really looks like.”