Change.org, Astroturf, and Small-d Democracy
Ari Melber owes Marshall Ganz an apology.
Last week the Huffington Post broke a story about changes at Change.org based on leaked internal documents, because the company apparently was not going to make these changes public. As Melber notes, the changes include ” accept[ing] ‘corporate advertising, Republican Party solicitations, astroturf campaigns’ and conservative political sponsorships.” He suggests this is framed by critics as a betrayal of the sites founding mission (it’s quite clear it’s a pretty radical shift). In the abstract, I can see the point (although I disagree) of suggesting that providing access without respect to political orientation has value, although even if I concede that the secrecy cannot be defended. Yet even so, that change is only one part. But Melber’s not offering a ‘here’s what the two sides said’ story here.
If you apply a traditional coalition paradigm, the story is that Change.org began by teaming up with a loose coalition of liberal groups, found success, and then left them behind as it grew into a something that looks more like a self-sustaining global technology company than a progressive meetup. That is the story of betrayal and “selling out.
But you can also apply an open-source paradigm, where the value of the system is defined by who it empowers and how it works, rather than any pre-set ideological objectives. Think of Wikipedia, or the bottom-up organizing models of Saul Alinsky and Marshall Ganz. Under this view, Change.org is simply expanding its civic services, and the more open, the better. While the open source view has loyal adherents, it is not a conventional ideology. It is a belief in a system.
Navigating a battle between partisan, progressive organizing and decentralized petition drives is, at bottom, like trying to choose between the Democratic Party and democracy.
Did you catch that? What on earth does any of that have to do with “corporate advertising, Republican Party solicitations, astroturf campaigns”? Isn’t that the complete opposite of the “open-source paradigm” or of “small d democracy” or “bottom-up organizing”? And how does progressive values equate with Democratic Party?
The original HuffPo story argued that this move was in response to the controversy over Michele Rhee and Students First, although Melber doesn’t mention it.
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 [Campaign for America’s Future’s Jeff] Bryant.
Labor and progressive organizations, which make up a sizable base of Change.org’s client list, threatened to pull out over the Rhee situation. After reports that Change.org was dropping Rhee and another controversial anti-union group as clients, the site continues to run her petitions.
What better illustration of the problem. Rhee’s astroturf group uses progressive rhetoric to attack public schools and teachers’ unions, with massive corporate backing. Change.org made promises to it users about its relationship with the group, which it failed to make good on, presumably because the relationship was lucrative and was valued above progressive principles.
All this makes a mockery of the sort of organizing the Ganz has championed – and of small-d democracy.
h/t Mike Conrad.