What is happening to Change.org and other organizations should worry all of us. With venture capitalists buzzing around these organizations waiting to put money and effort into buying the grassroots, Change.org appears to have decided it's too much trouble to make a decision about whether or not sponsored campaigns should be accepted from organizations doing evil to progressive causes, like Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst did earlier this year.
Jeff Bryant wrote a post for the Campaign for America's Future aptly entitled "Change.Org, Enabler Of Davids, Decides To Side With Goliaths Instead", exposing the decisions Change.org launched on Monday. They had not planned to actually tell their progressive clients they were moving in this direction, preferring to roll things out and then deal one on one with any complaints. However, someone leaked the internal documents to Jeff, who then published them along with his post.
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 wait, there's even more.
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."
According to the Huffington Post, these new policies came about after the furor over Rhee's StudentsFirst organization putting up misleading petitions in order to harvest email addresses.
Change.org leadership met in San Francisco this summer to hash out its new advertising policy following a public uproar in July over the site's partnership with Michelle Rhee, whose organization works in opposition to labor unions. "[W]e looked long and hard at our client policy in the context of our vision. This was the most difficult part of the weekend, but after many hours of discussion and edge cases we ultimately agreed that the current closed approach is simply not feasible," Change.org's founder and CEO Ben Rattray wrote in an email to staff, which was also leaked to HuffPost by Bryant.
"[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," he wrote. "Yet the honest reality is that we haven’t fully made this transition. At least in the US, we still often see things through a traditional partisan progressive lens, and over the past couple months it's become clear that we have a choice: we can continue to try to have it both ways and risk getting pigeonholed into being a partisan organization with a particular agenda and limited audience, or we can break out of this mold and aspire to something much bigger –- to true empowerment everywhere."
That's a pretty lame argument, to be honest. Saying that they'd be limited by remaining true to a progressive vision and so should empower everyone is just another way of saying their values mean less than their bottom line. Perhaps they don't understand that the reason they got traction was because there was an underlying trust that the causes promoted on their site were causes consistent with progressive values. The Rhee/StudentsFirst campaign and Stand for Children efforts were actually an effort to union-bust, which is clearly antithetical to progressive values.
If I, as a progressive, cannot trust the promoter of a cause as being progressive, then I have no option but to refuse to give my information up to any cause promoted on the site. It's really as simple as that.
Rattray's argument for broadening the base is not a new one, either. In July, NationBuilder announced it had inked a deal with the RSLC (Republican Senate Leadership Committee), which sparked a boycott. Faced with a progressive boycott, NationBuilder CEO Jim Gilliam said this:
"There’s a fundamental gap in what we believe," he said. "They’ve generally felt that they’ve had better weapons. We believe that is completely wrong. We’re about being neutral facilitators of democracy and that neutral aspect is an incredibly important of what we do," he said. "Over time, he will be on the wrong side of history."
Yes, as long as both sides have the weapons, it facilitates democracy. Or something. But wait, there's still more. Salsa Labs is a progressive outreach tool for email and other contact management points. Until recently, it too was a tool available to progressives. But last week, Salsa's CEO was ousted. Huffington Post:
Change.org's strategic break with the progressive movement comes just days after the board of another for-profit progressive company, Salsa Labs, ousted its CEO. Salsa is a prominent campaign organizing platform that took $5 million in venture capital funding last year -- a move the two cofounders say they "deeply regret." Salsa partner Fitzgibbon Media, which only works with progressive organizations, has decided to drop the company because it no longer considers Salsa in that category, according to founder Trevor Fitzgibbon.
I'm curious to know how Change.org will justify their brand name while accepting paid promotions from conservative organizations. After all, conservatives don't want change. That's a progressive value. Conservatives want things to say the same. And corporations? They just look after their bottom line.
All three of these organizations have changed and chosen not to remain within the province of progressive politics after succumbing to the lure of venture capital, presumably for expansion and growth, but at the expense of their core founding values?
That raises a troubling and persistent problem in progressive circles. Corporations and right wing causes never lack for the funds to promote their agenda. But on the left, we can't even get campaigns to buy ad space directly from us to keep sites like ours alive and vibrant! Instead, we ask you for donations, just like I'm going to do at the end of this post.
How can progressive infrastructure rise up and survive without having to accept the compromises that come from an infusion of venture capital funds? We need to have a serious discussion about how that happens in the tech space and the content space, so that our voices aren't bought out from under us.
Oh, one other detail about the Change.org debacle: The employee who leaked those internal documents was fired. There's a petition up at SignOn.org, which is a project of MoveOn.org. I've signed it and you should, too. Once you sign, you'll get an email that looks like this one:
Note the request for a donation to cover the costs of providing a petition site that supports progressive values without worry about corporate interference? Can haz stronger progressive infrastructure, please?
Care2.com is still true to their values, as is SignOn.org. But the only change to Change.org for me is a refusal to ever click and/or sign one of their petitions again. Just as they found it too burdensome to evaluate petitions for ideology, so too do I find it too burdensome to research each one to see which corporation bought it.
It's a shame, because they've done good things in the past, but as Jeff Bryant points out, someone should tell them David and Goliath were not on the same side.
Update: Aaron Krager frames it perfectly:
Imagine a corporate front group advertising on the site for cleaner energy and jobs. Sounds perfect. Too perfect really. Like a Frank Luntz focus group tested message. You see it would be a petition demanding less regulation and open access for fracking.
A petition like this is a violation of the client policy of old. Fracking poses serious risks to drinking water, possibly causes earthquakes, and does not serve the common good in the long-term. Sadly, under the proposed changes a petition like this could find an audience, misled or otherwise.