Change.org’s Open Platform Is Sparking an Identity Crisis

“They want to ‘inspire people to be the change they want to see in the world.’ But, what type of change do they stand for?”

Last month, Disney finally announced that it would re-theme Splash Mountain at Disneyland and Disney World. The ride, based on the racist 1946 movie Song of the South, will now be rebuilt to feature Tiana, the first Black Disney princess and the star of the 2009 film The Princess and the Frog.

Though the problematic nature of Song of the South had been flagged for decades, it was, as many news outlets argued, a Change.org petition with more than 20,000 signatures that finally pushed Disney to make the decision. The articles implied that the petition represented a popular uprising and a representative showcase of a widely held opinion. But that neat narrative is belied by the fact that Change.org also hosts a petition to “Save Splash Mountain” that is currently signed by nearly 80,000 people who support the claim that “To change such an iconic ride would erode The Nostalgia that lives in Disney World and take away a little bit of the magic.”

That tension is apparent throughout Change.org. A petition for Justice for George Floyd started by a 15-year-old named Kellen currently has nearly 19 million signatures and is the most popular petition in Change.org history. But the site also hosts or has hosted petitions like Label Black Lives Matter a Hate Group, Label Black Lives Matter as a Domestic Terrorism Group, and Preserve Monument Avenue because, as the last petition reads, “Now, due to revisionist history — and even a complete lack of an understanding of history — an angry mob mentality exists among certain people who want to remove beautiful works of art in the form of Confederate monuments.”

Change.org founder Ben Rattray has said that he originally created the site in part to be a kind of Facebook but for social causes. In many ways, Change.org has never resembled Facebook as much as it does now as both sites struggle to balance their open platforms in a time when the nation is finally reckoning with systemic racism. As advertisers and civil rights groups call Facebook to task, so too are users of the platform and former employees petitioning Change.org to stop profiting from hate.

Rattray and fellow Stanford alum Mark Dimas founded Change.org in 2007 with an elevator pitch that paraphrased Gandhi. They had “a simple mission: to empower people to come together to create the change they want to see.” Change.org started out as a nonprofit organization, but despite retaining the .org, it isn’t a nonprofit anymore. It’s a public benefit corporation (a for-profit company with a goal of social impact built into its corporate charter) and a certified B corporation, like Patagonia, S’well, or the Amazon alternative Bookshop. To be a B corporation, companies have to be regularly assessed by the nonprofit B Lab to determine their overall do-gooderness.

Change.org is supported in part by investors (Medium founder and CEO Ev Williams is one of them). The company also offers monthly memberships that let you “weigh in on upcoming site features” and “get a behind-the-scenes glimpse into inspiring campaigns.” Change.org’s inspirational pitch for membership looks a lot like one you’d see if you were signing up to make a recurring donation to Planned Parenthood or the National Rifle Association. The sign-up page prompts potential members to “fuel our mission to empower everyone to create the kind of change they want to see” and lists “what your contribution supports.” But Change.org never calls these memberships “donations.”

Image: Change.org

The company also has another way of making money. After you’ve signed a petition, you might see a window asking you to “chip in” to help spread the word about the petition, a feature the company calls “Promoted Petitions.” On the surface, “spreading the word” seems like doubling down on the whole purpose of a petition. But spreading the word about a Change.org petition also spreads the word about Change.org itself.

Last month, a group of former Change.org employees posted an open letter on Medium about the money collected from the chip-in feature on its George Floyd petition. “These donations do not go to George Floyd’s family, or to organizations fighting for Black lives. Rather, these contributions serve to market the petition and Change.org itself via billboards and digital ads,” they wrote in the Medium post.

“I don’t know if people really understand where their money is going.”

Change.org isn’t hiding the fact that the money you chip in goes to ads for the petition. “Promoted Petitions are advertisements,” says the site’s FAQ. “Similar to boosted posts on Facebook or sponsored tweets on Twitter, promoted petitions let you pay to show any petition (including your own) to other potential supporters on Change.org or our distribution channels.” The company asserts it will show 2,000 people a petition either on the Change.org website or in an email for every $100 that supporters chip in. According to a press release, the company has also used Promoted Petition funds to feature racial justice petitions on billboards, taxi-top ads, and more, reaching more than 240 million people total. Yet many of the people who chip-in after signing a petition assume the money will go to a cause related to that petition. This was true for several people who OneZero spoke with who had chipped in after signing various racial justice petitions, and according to this Twitter thread from May, many others who also felt duped.

Sierra Jackson, who was the business development manager at Change.org from 2014 to 2016, told OneZero that the “chip-in model, from my point of view, is a little bit disingenuous. I don’t know if people really understand where their money is going.” She added, “the kind of language that they’re using: ‘Chip in to win this campaign’ or ‘chip in to make a difference,’ is insinuating that the money is going to a particular cause or going to actually help change laws, and that’s really not the case.” Jackson says that she understands that Change.org has operating costs, but she says, “If the end goal is to empower these causes, why isn’t even a portion of this money going to these causes?”

Change.org wasn’t the only beneficiary of donations from people who failed to read the fine print. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, businesses and individuals rushed to donate money online, sometimes not knowing exactly who they were donating to. According to a report from BuzzFeed News, many raised money for an organization calling itself Black Lives Matter that is not associated with the official Black Lives Matter movement.

After the former employees published the open letter, Change.org “temporarily disabled” the chip-in feature on the Floyd petition but kept it up on other petitions. Alaina Curry, media manager at Change.org, told OneZero, “Every petition starts out with promotions turned on because we want all starters to have access to promotions that can help spread the petition to new audiences.” Curry says that if someone wants to turn off the chip-in feature, they can contact support.

I recently signed a petition for Justice for Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau, the Black Lives Matter activist who was found dead in June. After signing the petition, I was asked if I could chip in $8 “to get this petition on the agenda.” The writers of the open letter see this as an example of Change.org continuing to exploit Black people’s pain.

In a company blog post on June 13, less than a week after the open letter, Change.org announced a $6 million fund dedicated to supporting racial justice campaigning efforts, including “the movement beyond these individual campaigns and Change.org.” The company also has a site dedicated to social justice petitions and links to resources where people can donate to organizations that are doing real grassroots work. But some former Change.org employees say this isn’t enough.

Change.org says that supporters spent $9.9 million on petitions for justice for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which was “orders of magnitude” more than they had raised before. In the June 13 blog post, the company committed to spending “every single cent” that was chipped in on these petitions to “racial justice work,” including donating to Black-led organizations and creating a new team dedicated to racial justice organizing and action. But the blog post said nothing about increased moderation or addressing other problems of its open platform. Petitions pushing forward causes that are in direct opposition to racial justice work still exist on the site.

Jackson said that in 2014, when she was still working at Change.org, the company was already going through a kind of identity crisis. “They want to ‘inspire people to be the change they want to see in the world.’ But, what type of change do they stand for?” She says that when they figure that out, they need to be more transparent about where the money is going.

Writing back in 2012, Bloomberg columnist Jonathan Alter said of Change.org, “The site is neutral — think YouTube — and hosts about 10,000 campaigns a month from more than 150 countries. Some of them are sponsored by organizations such as Amnesty International and the Humane Society that pay the site to host their petitions; most, however, are homegrown efforts focused on local issues.” Change.org has done away with the sponsored campaigns, which allowed the sponsoring organization to pay for the email addresses of anyone who signed a petition, but a lot else has changed since Alter wrote about the company in 2012, perhaps most importantly what it means for an open platform to be “neutral.”

“Generally speaking, petitions don’t change the world by themselves.”

Last week, Nick Clegg, VP of global affairs and communications at Facebook defended accusations that the company was not doing enough to stop hate speech on the platform by saying, “With so much content posted every day, rooting out the hate is like looking for a needle in a haystack.” Like the problems at Facebook, Change.org also has issues with moderation. “I know they’ve drawn the line a little bit since I was there,” Jackson told me. “They’ve said, we’re not going to allow hate speech and that kind of thing on the platform, but they really have not had any kind of mechanism to monitor that, and I feel like people have been waving that flag for at least the past eight years or so.”

When I asked Curry from Change.org about whether there were petitions that the company did not allow on the site, she pointed me to the community guidelines and said, “As an open and global platform, we host petitions representing a wide range of views, including perspectives with which some people may strongly disagree.” The guidelines say that the company relies on users to report offensive content and that “the most effective way to respond to content you find offensive is to start a counter-petition and mobilize others.”

I sent Curry an email asking why this petition calling for Black Lives Matter to be declared a terrorist group, which is cached on Google, was no longer live, but a petition with nearly identical aims was still live. When Curry responded to my email a few days later, she told me that both of the petitions had been removed.

In her book So You Want to Talk About Race, author and activist Ijeoma Oluo writes, “How on earth can we be expected to dismantle a complex system that has been functioning for over 400 years? My answer is: piece by piece.” But where do we start?

There’s the obvious: vote, donate, protest. The slow but thoughtful: read, listen to podcasts, watch documentaries. The commercial: buy from Black-owned businesses, stop buying from anti-Black businesses, demand accountability from companies making Black Lives Matter statements. But what about those Change.org petitions? Signing them can’t hurt, right? But does it really help?

“Generally speaking, petitions don’t change the world by themselves,” says Caitlin Seeley George, campaign director for Fight for the Future, a nonprofit that describes itself as an organization dedicated in part to “channeling internet outrage into political power.” Seeley George told OneZero, “We use online petitions as one opportunity for people to engage in important issues, but they definitely need to be a part of a broader strategy.”

Fight for the Future is structured much differently than Change.org. It isn’t an open platform — all petitions are created by their team — so right now, the site doesn’t face the same both-sides-ism challenges as Change.org. Seeley George told me that the organization is focused specifically on defending civil rights in the digital world and “ensuring that technology liberates — and doesn’t oppress — people.” Because they’re a small team, they have to ruthlessly prioritize, focusing on a small handful of issues compared to the tens of thousands of petitions hosted on Change.org.

Fight for the Future still isn’t immune to problems. According to a story in Wired, the nonprofit had joined a coalition called Communities Against Rider Surveillance (CARS) to fight against tracking shared bikes and scooters. But then Wired informed Fight for the Future that Uber had helped start the group and was a major supporter. For Fight for the Future, this was a deal-breaker because Uber’s own business practices are counter to their efforts. Fight for the Future left the coalition.

According to Seeley George, Fight for the Future uses petitions to “build an army of people who care about something, and who we can ask to take more actions — like calling decision-makers.” They’ve developed online tools that make it easy for people to engage directly with their legislators. After I signed a petition to protect privacy rights during this pandemic, a window popped up that let me click a button to be connected with congressional lawmakers. Fight for the Future provided suggestions for what to say.

Change.org is now implementing similar action-oriented tools to the site. I recently joined the 9,330,623 people who had signed a Justice for Breonna Taylor petition. When I signed it, instead of showing me the chip-in feature, I got a screen asking me if I could call lawmakers. When I agreed, Change.org automated the process and showed me talking points that I could use to convince lawmakers that all officers involved in Breonna Taylor’s death should be charged with murder. When I asked Curry about it, she confirmed that the tool was new and that they’d also implemented it for the petitions for justice for Elijah McClain.

Insufficient moderation combined with an effort to remain an open platform while also making money means that Change.org will have to do more to keep people from using their petitions to spread hate or reinforce structural racism. Still, the neutral platform remains alluring. When I asked Seeley George if Fight for the Future allowed anyone to post their own petitions, she told me, “We’re actually discussing ways to develop an open platform and share our tools so that others can create their own petitions and run their own campaigns.”

Update: This article has been updated to clarify Change.org’s process for petition creators to turn off the chip-in feature.

Senior Platform Editor, Debugger and OneZero at Medium. 👩🏻‍💻 Send me your Medium stories about tech and gadgets.

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