Change is afoot at Change.org.*
Following up on this summer’s dilemma of success, (when controversy emerged around their sponsored petition contract with the anti-union education reform group, Stand For Children) Ryan Grim reports that the organization has adopted a new advertising policy “to allow for corporate advertising, Republican Party solicitations, astroturf campaigns, anti-abortion or anti-union ads and other controversial sponsorships.” Under the guise of openness, the company is seeking a Google- or Facebook-like policy: “If Google will allow it, we would allow it.” according to Communications Director Benjamin Joffe-Walt.
A lot of progressive advocacy professionals are upset about this switch. I’m not thrilled with it myself. As I wrote this summer, I think it’s a bad business decision. There are a lot more ways that this can go wrong than it can go right. Best-case scenario is that the organization brings in extra income and continues to grow. Worst-case is that current advertising partners abandon them and users feel betrayed, turning elsewhere.
I’ve resisted blogging about the topic thus far out of respect for the leaders involved. Change.org spent months internally deliberating over this issue. I think their intentions are genuine, and they certainly know their own organization better than I do.
Change’s CEO and Founder Ben Rattray just wrote a response piece for the Huffington Post. It’s the most thorough defense of the decision I’ve seen thus far. It still leaves me with three lingering concerns though, and I think those are worth sharing:
1. Power Analysis. In making the case for his organization, Ben writes the following:
In the past two years, Change.org has grown from 1 million to more than 20 million users, and we’re now growing by more than 2 million new users a month. But much more importantly, people are winning campaigns on the site every day: curbing corruption in Indonesia, fighting caste discrimination in India,forcing broadcasters to air the Paralympics on TV in France, shutting down ex-gay torture clinics in Ecuador. In the US, users are getting health care for military families at a poisoned army base, recalled cars off the road, ‘pink slime’ out of US schools, and photoshopped models out of girls magazines.**
The language he uses is evocative. “curbing… fighting… forcing… shutting down…” That language is central to his organization’s theory of change: that Change.org is a “social empowerment platform” that “distributes power more broadly.” Usually I wouldn’t fault him for choosing action-verbs. But here I think it covers up an inherent limitation of their model. Change.org campaigns cannot “force” anyone to do anything.
Robert Dahl wrote the classic definition of power in his 1957 article, “The Concept of Power.” “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something he would not otherwise do.” We can place pressure tactics on a continuum from most powerful to least powerful using this simple definition. At one extreme, you’d find the mafia (“Do this or we kill your family.”) at another extreme, you’d find poorly worded tweets (“Obama sux! Herman Cain in 2019!”).
The amount of power you need is a function of what A is asking B to do, and how B feels about it already. If you’re trying to keep Community on the air, you don’t need to threaten NBC executives’ families; you just have to demonstrate that there’s a robust audience in the target demographic. That’s the sweet spot for online petition platforms — they demonstrate citizen interest and attract media attention. It’s in this sweet spot that Change.org’s campaigns are most effective. Change.org campaigns are great at winning local victories by demonstrating to otherwise-indifferent decision-makers that public interest around an otherwise unknown topic. Change.org’s campaign doesn’t “force” French broadcasters to air the paralypmpics; it demonstrates to French broadcasters that there’s a bigger, more enthusiastic audience for the paralympics than they’d realized.
But let’s think about a tougher Ask. Let’s say you want Mitt Romney to release his tax returns, or you want the Senate to pass climate legislation. In that case, a Change.org petition isn’t going to get you anywhere. Romney has made it abundantly clear that his back taxes are never going to be released. He’s going to ignore a Change petition. The petition doesn’t “force” its target to act; it encourages them to act.
This is a non-trivial distinction because it illuminates the company’s niche in the broader social change ecosystem. Change.org puts social change tools in the hands of an awful lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise have them. They also provide organizers who help many small-scale campaigns win. That’s a social good, and they should be applauded for it. But, alone, it isn’t enough. Those small campaigns have to feed into bigger campaigns that challenge powerful actors and push them more aggressively. Change.org doesn’t ever target Congress. It doesn’t ever work on election issues. Someone else has to. And that means the folks at Change need allies and partners in a way that Facebook, Twitter, and Google don’t.
2. Advertising vs “advertising.” Both Rattray and Ben Joffe-Walt have tried to dismiss this controversy as being about nothing more than advertising policies. Google often delivers “Climate Change is a myth” ads to my gmail inbox. The RNC advertises through DailyKos. Why all the fuss about Change.org, anyway?
Frankly, I think they’re engaging in a bit of strategic double-speak here. They tell us that until recently they called their advertisers “partners,” and they’ve now revised the term to be more accurate. Okay, sure. But advertisements on Change.org aren’t like advertisements through Google.
Change.org funds its open petition platform and its campaign support organizers through “sponsored petitions.” Organizations like the Sierra Club can pay Change.org to run a petition for them. After signing it, you’re invited to opt in for more messages from the person/organization that created the petition. If you say yes, they get to acquire your e-mail address and contact you themselves. This is a pretty smart innovation. For peer organizations looking to grow their member roles, Change.org e-mail acquisition provides a high return on investment. It’s this innovation that has let Change get so big, so fast.
But by labeling sponsored petitions as advertisements, Change.org is sidestepping the real issue. The concern from progressive activists is that Climate Denial groups, anti-union groups, and other astroturfers can now purchase a big member list via Change.org, then leverage this into expanded political impact on-the-cheap. Reporters are never going to give National Association of Scholars additional attention because they’ve bought advertisements on DailyKos. But buying “ads” on Change.org will prove much more effective (“look at the outpouring of grassroots support we find on the liberal platform Change.org. Americans everywhere want to ban Mexico!”). Reporters are not going to capture the fine-grained distinction between sponsored petitions and organic petitions in their stories. That’s the real added value that Change will be offering to Exxon and ALEC: for a small investment, they can use Change.org to invent phantom grassroots support.
3. Avoiding the “L” Word Labelling. The impetus for this decision is that leaders at Change.org believe their power stems from being viewed as a neutral platform. Rattray writes, “There’s no way [their growth and broad acceptance] could happen at any scale if we had a particular political agenda.” Their concern is that, particularly as they expand internationally, conservative groups will label them “liberal.”
I used to hear a similar concern for years in the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club is a non-partisan advocacy group. We endorse candidates in elections. Every election cycle, there would be a handful of moderate Republicans that we’d endorse over their more-progressive Democratic opponents. Fellow progressives screamed at us. But our reasoning was that, if we didn’t endorse Republicans, then we would be labeled a Democratic group and we’d be less powerful. Endorsing moderate Republicans kept us immune from the charge.
Here’s the thing, though: we were labeled a Democratic group anyway. It’s the same sort of logic that leads Jennifer Rubin to complain, from the Washington Post about how no one in the mainstream media is covering her issue. Neither openness nor evidence will protect a successful social change organization from being labeled partisan. The “too liberal” label is a function of success, not partisanship. So long as Change.org is only organizing for school lunches and MPAA-ratings changes, they’ll be safe from the partisan label. The moment they start effectively winning larger victories, they’ll be named part of the Liberal Elite (C.F. Glenn Beck warning his viewers against the liberal Google).
Open advertising policies won’t protect Change.org from these charges. Tea Party groups are entirely capable of advertising on Change.org while simultaneously casting Change.org as a liberal opponent that is undermining America.
The antidote isn’t embracing conservatives by pissing off their partners and their user base. Change.org’s real power lies in its ability to offer journalists compelling stories of real people struggling to improve their communities. Change.org has a symbiotic relationship with the media. Citizens turn to Change as an outlet for small-scale social change efforts. Change.org organizers find the most compelling campaigns. Journalists can trust that the campaigns Change promotes will be engaging human interest stories. So long as Change does that well, they’re pretty much immune to the liberal label.
It’s entirely possible that the new advertising policy will be much ado about nothing. Astroturf groups might not notice. Progressive nonprofits might keep using Change.org to grow their lists. Peer organizations might (okay, will) find more important controversies to be upset about. But, after reading Ben Rattray’s response, these three issues linger for me. Change.org campaigns are great, but circumscribed. It seems like Ben and company are forgetting that they need partners if they’re going to build a better world. Advertising on Change is different than advertising on Google, and ought to acknowledge that. And partnering with conservatives has never stopped other conservatives from labeling you “too liberal.” That just isn’t the way these things work.
Here’s hoping that it all works out for the best.
*Sorry, the pun is unavoidable. I don’t like it either.
**He includes hyperlinks to these examples in the HuffPo piece, but they didn’t transfer with my cut&paste. Please read the article and click through to learn more.