Change.org, Enabler of Davids, Decides To Side With Goliaths Instead

Jeff Bryant

The online petition site Change.org is best known for enabling individuals to use the viral qualities of the internet to speak truth to power, such as when a 22-year-old nanny used the site to pressure a big bank to drop its debit fee, and an Eagle Scout challenged the Boy Scouts of America’s anti-gay policy.

Now, startling documents from the company reveal that Change.org is about to roll out new advertising policies that would allow the powerful to use the site to serve their own purposes as well.

According to the new policies, the social action platform will now be open to companies and corporations of any size, political parties, “front groups,” and “Astroturf” organizations. Only advertisers strictly identified as “hate groups” are to be barred.

According to a Change.org document “Rebrand-Internal FAQs,” the more than 20 million users of the platform will not notice dramatic changes to the site. They will see “a new visual look” and “updated language on the About Us” and other boilerplate pages. And users will be able to submit petitions as they have done in the past.

But these minimal changes to user experiences mask what will soon be going on behind the scenes.

In the current configuration, when users of the site sign petitions, their actions trigger messages from the site’s advertisers – currently known as “clients” or “partners” – which can allow advertisers to obtain valuable leads for their own outreach purposes.

Heretofore, users have been assured that these advertisers were vetted by Change.org against a particular set of “values” that align with the company’s mission, according to the current website, “as a B Corporation dedicated to using the power of business to promote social good.”

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.”

A different document, “Change.org Advertising Guidelines,” provides more detail about the new policies, including that ads can’t “promote hate, violence or discrimination… promote bullying, harassment, or intimidation… use or promote hate speech… discriminate against an organization, person, or protected group.” Also, “Ads cannot contain inaccurate or deceitful content.”

But the new policies, as they’re spelled out to staff members, make plain that the site will be opened to advertisements from political causes that previously fell outside the company’s “values,” including “anti-abortion, pro-gun, and union-busting” causes.

The company has no plans to “provocatively announce” the new guidelines to users.

Why The Change?

According to the Rebranding document, the changes have become necessary because the current policies “don’t scale.”

“We need to get out of the business of making subjective judgments about advertisers,” the explanation reads. And new “advertising guidelines will help us maximize our mission.”

But elsewhere in the document is a telling passage about the company wanting to avoid what happened “this summer.” What happened this summer was that Change.org’s partnership with two groups opposed to teachers unions, Students First and Stand for Children, became a point of heated controversy when teachers in Chicago were embroiled in labor negotiations.

Both groups drew the ire of teachers unions, the labor movement in general, and other progressives when they began running petitions on Change.org that, many felt, were deceptive and undermining of the teachers, who eventually went on strike.

When Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel stonewalled the teachers and caused a break-off in negotiations, Change.org ran a petition on its site from Stand for Children that demanded the union go back to the bargaining table. As blogger Aaron Krager noted at the time, the text of the petition featured “the same talking points used by Mayor Rahm Emanuel” and accused the teachers of holding the students “hostage.”

The controversy eventually resulted in Change.org announcing that it would drop both groups as advertisers, as reported by The Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim.

Was Students First Change.org’s “Gateway Drug” For Anti-Progressive Causes?

The group Students First had long been a particular irritant to classroom teachers and advocates for public schools. Headed by former Washington D.C. public schools superintendent Michelle Rhee, Students First lobbies in state legislatures and donates to political candidates to pass laws that reduce teachers’ job security and professional status, link their pay and evaluations to student scores on standardized tests, and erode teachers’ collective bargaining rights.

Students First is by no means a “grassroots” organization. The group has significant financial backing from Rupert Murdoch, the Walton Family of Walmart fame, and deep-pocketed hedge-fund investors.

Rhee’s organization has used Change.org’s platform to harvest over 2 million email addresses – which the organization claims as “members” – in response to its petitions focusing on teachers, immigration reform, anti-bullying, and other issues that resonate with progressives.

Teacher and activist Nancy Flanagan, writing on her blog at the website for the education trade newspaper Education Week, explains how Rhee and her group was able to use Change.org to get untold numbers of well-meaning activists to unwittingly lend their support to the cause of union-busting:

While working on the Save Our Schools campaign, I got a call from an enraged supporter who signed a Save Our Schools-endorsed petition at Change.Org and was immediately taken to the StudentsFirst site. “Please tell me,” she said through clenched teeth, “that Save Our Schools is not affiliated in any way with Michelle Rhee.”

So I spoke with Change.Org… I asked why Change.Org thought StudentsFirst was a progressive cause – the kind of initiative that pushed real democracy forward. There was a pause. Then the nice young man I was speaking to said, “Well, there was actually a lot of talk around the office about that.” Discreet. In the end, Students First becomes a revenue stream for Change.Org – $1.75 for every signature-cum-email they snag.

In many respects Students First served as Change.org’s initial foray – going back to March 2011, according to Grim – into the controversy of taking clients with anti-progressive agendas and allowing them to tap into good causes promoted on the site.

And when the company was called on it, during the controversy surrounding the Chicago teachers strike, Chang.org declared it would do “the right thing,” as was trumpeted in a diary on Daily Kos, and drop the bad actor from the site.

Now we know what Change.org really had in mind. Instead of actually dropping Students First, it has been retooling itself to get more advertisers like Students First.

A Trust Violated?

As Change.org transitions to the new advertising policies, it is also changing its mission. That new mission statement — “to empower people everywhere to create the change they want to see” – was introduced to staff members in a company email on September 28 from CEO Ben Rattray.

Maybe among people who believe “corporations are people, my friend,” Change.org’s move to open its site to the largest and most powerful actors in society aligns with a mission to “empower people.” But since when has “change” come from serving the most powerful?

It’s also important to remember the aura around Change.org that helped the company build its reputation and advance its business.

In a gushing portrait of Rattray that recently ran in the San Francisco Chronicle, reporter Meredith May proclaims, “Using a David versus Goliath framework, Change.org galvanizes people to turn their personal stories of hardships into online uprisings that get banks to drop fees, the movie industry to change film ratings, judges to unshackle minors, and countries to create new human rights protections.”

May didn’t just make that up. Rattray personally has done much to brand his company with a “truth to power” narrative. In a video interview available on YouTube, he declares that the purpose of Change.org is to “change the balance of power between individuals and large corporations and government.”

And in a TED Talk, also available on YouTube, Rattray regales the adoring audience with story after story of Change.org helping “a David fighting a seemingly insurmountable campaign against a Goliath” – and winning.

One has to wonder, given Change.org’s new advertising policy, does Rattray not understand that David and Goliath have never been on the same team?

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