Change.org: We’ve Seen This Before


Wenonah Hauter

Executive Director, Food & Water Watch

Posted: 10/30/2012 6:16 pm

Recently, the Huffington Post reported thatChange.org has abandoned its progressive roots and apparently planned on doing it without telling anyone, according to documents leaked from a Change.org employee to Jeff Bryant with Campaign for America’s Future. (According to this petition on rival petition site Signon.org, that employee has nowbeen fired.)

So why is Change.org changing?

“[W]e as an organization have transitioned from an American cause-based organizing network with a largely progressive agenda into a global platform open to a wider diversity of participants and perspectives,” wrote Change.org founder and CEO Ben Rattray to his staff, in an email also leaked to The Huffington Post.

For the past three years, Food & Water Watch has run campaigns with Change.org, so we were outraged when we heard that they would now potentially be working with the likes of Monsanto, the American Petroleum Institute, and anyone else that wants to run a campaign with them.

We spoke with several leaders inside Change.org last week, including Ben Rattray himself. He tried to reassure us that their change in policy did not mean a change in values, and they would not start working with Monsanto tomorrow.

Our conversations did not reassure us.

Rattray characterizes this new “open” policy as a way to indicate that they are non-partisan and focused on empowerment as a tool of change. I pointed out to him that in many cases the issues we work on, from fracking and genetically modified organisms to privatization of our common resources and the destruction or weakening of unions, has been embraced by both major parties.

In fact, wouldn’t we hope that a platform like Change.org would hold Democratic Party officials accountable to their base, rather than the corporations that are buying votes and ultimately creating a situation where public policy is for sale?

And let’s talk about empowerment. 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.

We’ve experienced time and time again being outspent on campaigns by industry front groups that have slick messaging and PR campaigns that are meant to confuse and paralyze voters and the democratic process. We’re seeing this right now in California where we’re trying to pass Prop 37 to give citizens the right to know if their food contains genetically modified ingredients. The biotech and processed food industries are pouring more than $35 million dollars into campaigns designed to mislead voters, while the side fighting for Prop 37 has pennies to their dollars to educate voters about the truth.

Even after talking with Ben, I get the impression that their decision comes down to increasing their size and reach. This will mean more advertisers and higher revenues. 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.

This is just one more example of why it is so important to have a strong and vibrant public interest community that does not accept money from corporations and that keeps an appropriate distance because in a for-profit company, the pressure is always to increase earnings for shareholders and investors. As long as this is all above board and everyone understands the relationship, so be it. But it’s unseemly when an organization that claims to be progressive, and has built its organization on working with the progressive community, sells out like this.

Thankfully, there are other progressive groups that aren’t embarrassed about being progressive. Organizations like Care2, Credo Mobile, and Moveon.org who are working in this sphere are committed to the kind of change we want, and won’t compromise in the interest of increasing profits.

Recently there has been a lot of chatter about how our political system is so broken that we should just let business take the lead in creating social change. This is a dangerous sentiment. No matter how well-meaning companies may be, the pressure will always be on increasing market share and making a profit. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be some good companies that maintain their principles and make a fair profit. But, there will always be people who are willing to put aside their principles and original vision to attract investors and to increase profits. We will be watching to see what happens at Change.org and keeping our fingers crossed that they don’t weaken the very movement that they were formed to strengthen.

This post originally appeared on Food & Water Watch’s blog.

Related articles

Change.org –the Brutal Betrayal !


by- MattBrowner Hamlin

Yesterday news broke that Change.org, an historically progressive-leaning distributed organizing platform, would shift to working with any advertising client, regardless of political affiliation. The story has been ably covered byRyan GrimJeff Bryant, and Aaron Krager – I highly recommend you read their pieces, all of which hinge around leaked internal Change.org documents that cover this shift.

The documents are well worth reading and have been posted by Krager (all links are PDFs). They include:

  • July 2012 email from CEO Ben Rattray to staff explaining the recent decisions by senior staff to pursue a big change in their client advertising policy;
  • September 2012 email from Rattray to their staff explaining the shift;
  • Rebrand-InternalFAQs-Change
  • As I said, the posts linked above give a good run down of the general problems associated with this shift in policy and values form Change.org. I recommend you read them and the leaked documents, which give a very clear view of the goals and motives behind this shift.

    I want to draw attention to one particular aspect of Change.org’s justifications for this move, quoting Jeff Bryant:

    What will change is that Change.org will no longer “filter potential advertisers” based on the advertisers’ “values.” Nor will Change.org filter potential advertisers based on any “gut feelings about the content of the ad itself.”

    The implication expressed in Change.org’s internal documents, by Change.org’s spokesman Ben Joffe-Walt who Ryan Grim quotes as saying, “Change.org is “not beholden to one community,” and by the talking points circulated by multiple Change.org staff members on progressive email list serves all point to the idea that it’s simply not possible for Change.org to make determinations about which clients are or are not progressive. As a result, they are saying they are now formally stopping to make any attempt to limit who they sell email addresses to based on their “values.”

    These talking points are undermined by their expressed strategies for evolving their advertising platform. In a section in their internal FAQ titled, “When will we be able to target ads better?” they have this explanation:

    • Machine learning: we are developing the technology to match action alerts to users, which utilizes everything we know about a user (what petitions they’ve signed, geography, demographics) to match them to petitions they’re most likely to be interested in. This is complicated technology but should bear fruit in 2013. Once that happens, we should be able to repurpose the technology and use everything we know about a user (what petitions they’ve signed, geography, demographics) to match them to the ads (sponsored petitions) they’re most likely to be interested in.
    • Tagging: we want to move from our current 8-cause system to a much more flexible tagging system. Once complete, users and Change.org staff will be able to tag any petition in many different ways, for example as “pro-choice.” We will then be able to show that “pro-choice” advertisement to people who have signed petitions tagged as “pro-choice” while suppressing people who’ve signed “pro-life” petitions. This is technically complicated, and we’re hoping to make significant progress in 2013.

    To be clear, what this means is not only that Change.org is saying internally that they are capable of assessing the political orientation of an advertiser or a petition, but that this assessment is something which is critical to their evolved business model.

    I raise this point because to me the idea of determining what is or is not in line with the values this company espoused since its founding until this week is completely possible. It’s been done with relative success by Change.org – excepting their work with union busting clients like Students First and Stand for Children – throughout the history of the firm. And most importantly, their ability to determine if a client should target liberal or conservative audiences is central to their future business model. They will be selling organizations and companies this ability – it’s what will make their ads worth money to their clients.

    When I look at Change.org’s talking points and internal messaging documents,  I see a lot of sophistry and disingenuous argumentation that I’m not going to go through now. I see statements like they’re not doing this for the money and since I am not a mind reader, I can only speculate whether or not that is true.

    But Change.org is telling the public that they are simply incapable of figuring out if their clients are liberal or conservative and as a result must throw up their hands to even trying to make the choice – this is a flat-out lie. Their own technology development and advertising targeting plans reveal it as a lie. Not only are they capable of making a determination as to what a client’s values are, it’s what they are selling their clients to maximize the impact they have as an advertising platform.

    There’s a lot to be unhappy about with this devolution at Change.org. I’m sure others will write more about it in coming days and I’m guessing I will too. But the completely cynical use of a lie about their fundamental ability to figure out who they are partnering with when they sell ads is something that I feel compelled to highlight first and foremost.

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