The next time you sign a petition on Change.org, you may see some very different sorts of petitions.
The petitions website, which allows users to create and circulate petitions and has garnered national attention for hundreds of grassroots movements, has quietly decided to allow anti-abortion groups, corporations, and astro-turf movements like the ones funded by the notorious Koch brothers to buy promoted space on the site and contact users directly. Internal company documents were leaked to Jeff Bryant, an associate fellow at Campaign for America’s Future, a progressive organization that specializes in policy research and campaign strategy for liberal causes. Bryant subsequently turned over the documents to the Huffington Post.
And it’s no small wonder Bryant went to the press. The documents seem to indicate a serious betrayal of anyone that believed Change.org to be a progressive site. Among the internal documents was a FAQ list sent to Change.org employees, which identified the new advertising scheme as similar to that of Google, and that the company had “no plans to proactively tell users about the new design or our new mission, vision, or advertising guidelines.” On the subject of “anti-abortion, pro-gun and union-busting advertising,” Change.org wrote to its employees, “We are open to organizations that represent all points of view, including those with which we personally (and strongly) disagree.”
Benjamin Joffe-Walt, the communications director for Change.org, disagreed with the Huffington Post’s characterization of Change.org’s policy. Joffe-Walt believes that even the term “policy change” is too strong, and views the policy rewrite as more of a clarification more than anything else. He told Lawsonry that media coverage of these leaked documents unfairly conflate the decision to be an open platform for everyone with the decision to pursue specific kinds of advertisers or clients. “We’re not ‘working with’ advertisers any more than Google or Facebook works with their advertisers. It’s tantamount to me saying that HuffPost is working with rapists, anti-semites, and communists because they could use the site – it’s sensationalism.”
Joffe-Walt says that the goal of Change.org was never to promote a specific platform or group’s ideas, but to be an open and accessible platform for everyone. Now that the policy has been rewritten, Change.org will make the judgment on promoting a petition based upon the content rather than the group promoting it, providing that the group is not a hate group and the ad is not discriminatory, illegal, or promoting hate speech. The reason for the shift is because, according to Joffe-Walt, the site simply wasn’t big enough to need clarification until recently.
Of course, the issue at hand is that Change.org, which has grown rapidly in the last few years in terms of name recognition and number of users, built their online empire buy appealing to progressives. Prominent progressives like Shelby Knox were headhunted by Change.org, and even the site’s appeal to social change through online community outreach – a fundamentally progressive idea. And while it is certainly Ben Rattray’s prerogative to make money however he sees fit, this move is likely to leave a bad taste in the mouths of progressives. To allow an open platform and direct access to Change.org users to groups whose core mission is to deny civil rights through opposing marriage equality and reproductive rights certainly doesn’t feel like “Change” to a lot of people – it feels like business as usual. And the company’s seemingly cynical decision to grow through neutrality – in another interview, Joffe-Walt said, “We’re helping to drive net positive change in the world — with the emphasis on net” – may make progressive activists think twice about where they start their next petition.
When asked about the company’s large progressive clients – a list that includes Sierra Club, Amnesty International, and Credo Mobile – and whether or not theyhad been made aware of the changes prior to the leak, Joffe-Walt insisted that Change had reached out to all of their current advertisers. But, he conceded, “Because the document was leaked and the HuffPost covered it, we had to rush the announcement of the policy ahead of time, which made it more difficult to reach out to every advertiser ahead of time. But yes, they have all been informed.”
Only time will tell if Change.org’s progressive users will be as open to the company’s growth as its progressive advertisers.