Nine years ago 26-year-old Ben Rattray founded Change.org in America.
The site follows a now-familiar model, allowing users to create, sign and promote petitions. What makes Change.org different is its scale, in less than a decade the platform has grown to more than 100 million users around the world.
While many are skeptical of online advocacy, or ‘clicktivism’, Change.org clearly sees itself as a tool of digital democracy in an ever more connected world.
The for-profit company claims it has a successful petition every hour of every day in countries around the world. One of those countries is India, where the company now has 4 million users.
SBS got in touch with Preethi Herman, the 34-year-old former Greenpeace campaigner who runs Change.org in the world’s largest democracy.
Born in Gudalur and raised in south India, Herman joined the company in 2012, a year after it was launched in the country.
Herman says the Change.org platform is natural fit for India, a country with a history of social action and activism. India’s modern history is grounded by organised resistance against British colonial rule.
Today, the site provides a snapshot of what Indians are engaged with, Herman says, and the range of issues is quite broad.
“Petition subjects vary from consumer issues, corruption and censorship. Child rights is a big one, specifically child sexual abuse. We also get quirkier subjects like Bollywood and the casting on TV soaps,” she said. “This range is very reflective of the diversity of this country of 1.2 billion people.”
The second most popular petition on the site calls for the government to take stronger action to prevent child sexual abuse. It has over 185,000 supporters. The top petition in the country calls for an end to caste based allocation of education and employment positions, an affirmative action-style mechanism is known as ‘reservation.’
“When an issue breaks out in the media, there are many petitions being started by people around it,” Herman says, “and with that trend, we see a lot of petitions on corruption and nationalist violence.”
A language divide
The Indian version of Change.org is offered in both Hindi and English, and Herman says that while many of the petitions are similar, there is a noticeable difference between the two.
“Hindi issues are currently more middle class issues and micro – not national – issues,” she says. “Current popular petitions in Hindi are on establishing a university in a region that doesn’t have one, providing permanent jobs for part time teachers, and protecting a river from polluting industries.”
“The increasing number of hyper-local issues is also an indication that people are taking action on issues that might not have popular resonance across the country - but definitely strong and impactful locally,” she says.
The user demographics between the two versions also differs. Herman told us that while users on the English Indian site are mostly males aged 20 to 45, the Hindi version was cutting across age and education levels.
Herman says she would love to support women engaging more in politics, media, technology and social change.
“We still have a long way to go with gender. But we’re already seeing some very impactful campaigns led by women who start petitions and role modelling. And that’s a promising trend,” she says.
Gender is a popular petition issue on the site, in a country which still struggles with dowry payments, domestic violence, honour killings and acid attacks.
Impartial, to a point
While Change.org started out as a progressive social venture nine years ago, it has since morphed into a more agnostic for-profit campaign platform.
The move hasn’t been without its controversy. The company analyses the petitions its users sign to build a profile of their interests and passions, information it uses to target sponsored campaigns from clients ranging from Amnesty International to the UK Conservative Party.
Herman sees the company’s impartiality as part of its appeal.
“Sometimes there are opposing petitions on the same issue - and for me, that’s an intrinsic part of democracy,” she says. Others have noted that impartiality raises the commercial appeal of the platform, allowing them to appeal to a broader base of users and a wider range of clients.
There is a line, however. In early 2014 the company banned an Indian petition which had gathered 2,500 signatures. The petition condemned the “homosexual lifestyle” as a threat and linked gay people to paedophilia.
Herman told us they pulled the petition down after a prominent Indian LGBTI activist, Harrish Iyer, brought it to their attention. “We removed the petition shortly after because it violated our community guidelines in relation to hate speech,” she said.
We drew Herman’s attention to a similar petition on the site. With only a handful of signatures, it said homosexual parents are more likely to molest their children, that their relationships were “dangerously unhealthy,” and that LGBTI people were a “financial drain” on society due to HIV treatment costs.
Herman told us she would flag the petition with her policy team for review. “More than 1500 petitions are started in India every month and along with our own systems, we rely on our users to flag petitions to us through an option at the end of a petition page,” she said.
As of publishing, the petition still remains on the site.
Herman has high hopes for the platform’s potential in India, viewing it as transformative for the ever-growing and increasingly connected democracy.
“With almost 400 million users on the internet in India, technology has brought down barriers for people’s engagement in governance,” Herman says, claiming it’s a misconception to view this shift as merely feel-good ‘clicktivism’ – advocacy without the effort.
“Every day I witness hundreds of petition starters organise signers of their petitions into communities, develop and execute crowd-sourced campaign strategies,” she says, stressing that many of the online campaigns are backed up by community organising on the ground.
“These petition signers use different strategies including lobbying, fundraising or getting media help to take their petitions to a victory,” she said, “calling it ‘clicktivism’ is grave injustice for the huge movement it is.”
“My goal for India is to see a move in politics towards engaging more people’s issues and putting people in the centre of solutions to the problems, instead of focusing energy on mud-slinging,” Herman says.
“This is shifting already and Change.org has a huge role to play in it.”