A longtime Arlington County Board member shakes up Virginia politics by announcing plans to step away. Uncertainty clouds the future for the chief of one of Maryland's treasured public school systems. And the field of candidates narrows in D.C.'s special elections looming in the spring.
Anyone with a gripe or a cause can go to a website, create an online petition, and — if it gets enough electronic signatures — maybe even get a response from the president. Kojo examines the growing popularity of online petitions with leaders of Change.org, SignOn.org and MDPetitions.com, and explores their ability to influence the national discourse.
- Anna Galland Executive Director, MoveOn.org
- Megan Lubin Washington Communications Manager, Change.org
- Alex Howard Washington Correspondent, O'Reilly Media
- Neil Parrott Member, Maryland House of Delegates (R-District 2B - Washington County); Chairman, MDPetitions.com
President Obama Responds To ‘We the People’ Petitions On Gun Violence
Change.org’s 2012 Accomplishments
Hasbro Petition To Feature Boys In Easy-Bake Oven Ads
After over 45,000 people signed a petition, Hasbro announced their plans for a gender neutral silver and black Easy Bake Oven that will be marketed to both boys and girls.
SignOn.org: People Powered Politics
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. One petition calls for Texas to secede from the Union. Another wanted a referendum on Maryland's DREAM Act. A third asks that easy bake ovens come in gender-neutral colors so little boys can bake. Rallying your fellow citizens around the cause by circulating a petition is as old as the republic, but getting thousands of people to sign that petition with the click of a mouse is as new as the Internet.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWebsites like Change.org and SignOn.org are witnessing a surge in the number of people who are both starting and signing these petitions. They say online petitions offer citizens new power to lobby their government and make their voices heard. Skeptics say the ease of clicking to sign deflates the value of online petitions. But even the White House has gotten into the act.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd if your online petition gets enough electronic signatures at the website We the People, you just might get a response from the president. Joining me for a Tech Tuesday look at the growth and power of online petitions is Megan Lubin, Washington communications manager with Change.org. She joins us in studio. Megan Lubin, thank you for joining us.
MS. MEGAN LUBINThanks so much.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Alex Howard. He's Washington correspondent with O'Reilly Media. Good to see you again, Alex.
MR. ALEX HOWARDIt's a pleasure to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd joining us from studios at WUOM in Ann Arbor, Mich., is Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn.org. Anna Galland, thank you for joining us.
MS. ANNA GALLANDThanks. It's good to be here.
NNAMDIMegan, allow me to begin by what I have been reading in the news today that the Oxygen Network has decided to cancel a reality show called "All My Babies' Mamas," which was featuring the Atlanta-based rapper Shawnty Lo, his 11 children and the 10 mothers of his 11 children. And it is my understanding that there was a petition on Change.org that got 33,000 signatures in 10 days...
NNAMDI...that led the Oxygen Network to cancel that.
LUBINYep. You're absolutely right, and that's the rumor right now is that the petition itself is successful. So actually, to take a step back, the petition that you're referencing was started by a woman named Sabrina, and it was very straightforward. She didn't like the images that the show was portraying and the images of black men and women that the show is portraying in the media. She started a petition that ended up being wildly successful, very popular with our users, and she's actually got three petition deliveries planned as we speak.
NNAMDI'Cause I've been reading all over my Facebook friends, on Twitter, people discussing whether or not the show would be on and the fact that they didn't want it to be on. And now, voila, it's apparently not going to be on. Talk about the growing interest in online activism. Change.org had 6 million members one year ago.
NNAMDINow, it has 25 million. Why is it taking off right now?
LUBINAbsolutely. So just to take another step back for your listeners who aren't familiar with Change.org, Change.org is the world's largest petition platform, and our mission is to empower people to make the change they want to see in the world. And the end vision is to make -- making change a part of everyday life, something that you don't really think about. And this petition is actually a great example.
LUBINSabrina saw that the show was going to go on air and was able to do something about it in a manner of minutes, and that's starting a petition. When it comes to the growth of online petitions, I mean, those numbers are pretty stark, and I know some of the sign-on numbers are as well, but you're right. A year ago, Change.org had 7 million members. We just reached 25 million members at the end of 2012.
LUBINWe have users in every single country on the planet, and we have staff in about 17. And, you know, from where we sit, the feeling of starting a petition and making that change is -- it's quite contagious. You see your friends starting a petition and then winning that petition. That makes you want to start your own petition and make your own change, bring your own friends into the fold. It's -- it makes it very accessible in a way that as you were talking about as you were introing the segment just wasn't -- folks didn't conceptualize in this way even 10, 20 years ago.
NNAMDIWhat's the difference between being a member of Change.org and signing an online petition at your website?
LUBINThere actually is no difference, so a Change.org user or member, as you put it, is anybody who has signed a petition and does not unsubscribe.
NNAMDIAlex, what in your opinion accounts for the blowing up, so to speak, of this phenomenon?
HOWARDWell, straightforward, there are a lot more of us online these days. The growth in Internet users has continued to skyrocket around the world, and the growth of people able to access the Internet using their mobile devices is continuing to grow rapidly. And the confluence of those two things is significant. The third factor, of course, is social media.
HOWARDShe mentioned friends a number of times. There is no doubt in my mind that the use of Twitter and Facebook, Tumblr and the rest of the platforms growing in usage around the world are in fact connecting people to each other and connecting people to issues. And you put the two of those things together, and you get some powerful network effects.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number if you'd like to join this Tech Tuesday conversation. Have you ever signed an online petition? What's your reaction when you see a petition in your inbox? 800-433-8850. Anna Galland, MoveOn.org started 15 years ago as an online petition. Remind us what that was about.
GALLANDSure. So it's funny to think that 15 years ago the idea of an online petition was basically brand new. Our co-founders, Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, started a petition in the midst of the kind of fury around President Clinton being impeached or being threatened to be impeached at that moment, and they started a petition calling on Congress to censure the president and move on to the pressing business facing the nation. That's the origins of our name.
GALLANDAnd since then, you know, that was really the first online petition that went big, and since then, MoveOn has become this, you know, an organization of millions of Americans working together to make this country more progressive, levering technology -- leveraging technology to sort of allow people's voices to be heard over the din of special interest groups in Washington and sort of money into corporate lobbyists and whatnot.
GALLANDI mean one interesting thing I think since then is the fact that we've taken this sort of model of the online petition and MoveOn's campaigners and sort of turn it on its head and start to farm out that power to our members, not just us as a sort of professional staff starting petitions now. It's everybody. It's millions of people around the country having access to those same tools.
NNAMDIYour online petition tool is called SignOn.org. It's something that you helped create. Why did you decide to essentially dust it off after the 2010 elections, and what is its relationship to MoveOn.org?
GALLANDYeah. You know, it's funny. In the wake of the 2010 elections, we were looking around and thinking, oh, my gosh, we need a way to connect the power of our members and the kind of online organizing savvy that we built up over the past many years. We need a way to bring that power to the state and local level because we were seeing so many vital decisions on environmental issues, on workers' rights, on civil rights, on women's health sort of taken to the state level. And so SignOn initially was a sort of innovation experiment for us.
GALLANDI mean, it was a tool we had developed a number of years back, closer to 2007, that we didn't quite know what to do with, and we resurrected it in early 2011 and again as a way to sort of allow our members to start petitions on the state and local issues that our national staff would never understand or never have enough grasp with the policies to be able to lead themselves. And we saw an explosion. We had, you know, right out of the gate, all of a sudden, we saw people starting petitions on things we just never could have dreamed of.
GALLANDIn Utah, a school bus driver started a petition that got over 30,000 signatures, which is a lot in a state like Utah, that helped convinced the Republican governor to veto a bill that have been passed by the Republican state legislature that would have prohibited any form of sex ed in public schools, you know, anything on reproductive health, contraceptives, anything like that. No one expected that outcome on it, you know, even the bus driver. And it was triggered by this sort of outpouring around his petition.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Anna Galland. She is executive director of MoveOn.org. She joins us from studios in Ann Arbor, Mich. Alex Howard joins us in our Washington studio. He is Washington correspondent for O'Reilly Media. And Megan Lubin is Washington communications manager at Change.org. We're talking about the rise of online petitions and taking your calls at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIHave you ever started an online petition? How many signatures did you get, and what was the outcome? And speaking of people who have started online petitions, joining us now by phone is Delegate Neil Parrott, who represents Washington County in the Maryland House of Delegates. He is chairman of MDPetitions.com. Delegate Parrott, thank you for joining us.
MR. NEIL PARROTTOh, thank you for having me. It's a real pleasure to be on the show today.
NNAMDIIn November, the Maryland ballot included three referenda on the so-called DREAM Act, on same-sex marriage and on redistricting. All three were put there through petition drives that you organized. How many of the signatures were collected online with help from your group and the petitions.com?
PARROTTSure. One thing about the redistricting in Maryland, we got "Comedy Central" came forward and said that we had -- basically, they showed some of the districts that we have the most gerrymandering in the entire country. So it was good that citizens of Maryland got to vote on that issue. And when we looked at the signatures, about a third came from an online process where people would print out the actual official form, sign it and date it, and they get their friend, their family members to sign and date it and mail it back.
PARROTTThe other two-thirds came from people doing it the old way that would have been done 100 years ago even, just going to shopping centers or their friends and family, to people at places of worship, places at work. So really about a third, though, it really did help that it was online because then people even when they did it the old-fashioned way, they were allowed to be part of the referendum process even if they didn't live anywhere near where the organizers were who started the petition.
NNAMDIThese three referendums mark the first time in 20 years that a petition drive for a so-called veto referendum that is something to throw out an existing law made it onto the ballot. What role do you think the online petitions played in your ability to collect the signatures you needed?
PARROTTWell, I think for one thing it allowed people all across the state to get involved in the referendum process. It also -- especially for the first one, our first one was in the summer of 2011, and that was the bill that would have given in-state college tuition benefits to illegal aliens to attend college, to pay for about two-thirds of the cost, really that one just exploded. People were very interested in that issue.
PARROTTWithout the online process, though, people wouldn't I don't think would have been able to believe that we could have succeeded because in Maryland there hasn't been a successful effort in 20 years. So having it online not only did it allow people to participate who otherwise couldn't, it also gave more of an official capacity where they understood, hey, this actually could go, and it did. Thankfully, people worked very, very hard all across the state to get those on the ballot.
NNAMDIAfter you answer this next question, I'd like to hear from Megan Lubin and Anna Galland on it also. Some critics say that online petitions make it too easy to overturn hard-fought laws. Others say online petitions help people participate in government who might not otherwise have access. What do you say, Delegate Parrott?
PARROTTWell, just a quick story, the ACLU was suing in Maryland to say that we couldn't use an online-type petition, but at the same exact time, they were suing in Utah to say, "Oh, we've got to allow online petitions." And these people are being disenfranchised, these college students, who vote in Utah, but go to college somewhere else. So actually, they dropped their case here in Maryland. I think it's critical to allow people all across the state to be involved in the petition process, and really, that's the best way to do it is through the computer. It certainly doesn't make it easy -- too easy.
PARROTTIt's an excruciatingly difficult process. It has been 20 years since anything in Maryland has gone under the ballot. And even this year, you know, hundreds of bills are passed over the last -- thousands, actually, the last couple of years, and we're only talking three bills that got on to the ballot. And they were critical bills that even, like, same-sex marriage, even many people who voted for it said, we're going to vote for it because we want the people of Maryland to choose. So they knew that it was going to go on the ballot when they voted that way.
NNAMDIOf course, when it went on the ballot, it went down. Same-sex marriage won in that situation. But what do you say, Megan Lubin?
LUBINSure. Well, you know, I don't think any of the Change.org users is sort of the big victories that you may have heard of from the last years -- from the last few years. I don't know if any of them would say that their victories were easy. I'd say that they were pretty hard fought. And I'd also argue that, you know, were then -- what Neil was talking about is the old way of signature gathering, right, door to door with a pen paper writing down names.
LUBINI would actually argue that the same effort is required to sign your name on a piece of paper that, you know, that same as is required to type your name and fill in information about yourself on a petition and read about that issue. You know, we talk a lot about how -- if at that the end of the day, you know, sites like Change.org and SignOn.org and MDPetitions are accused of making activism and social change easy, you know, that's OK. We're OK with it.
NNAMDIWhat do you say, Anna Galland?
GALLANDYeah. I mean, I think back to, you know, the experience that many of our members had in this past election where their problem was certainly not that the Democratic process was too easy to participate in, you know, with the sort of the rise of voter suppression efforts.
GALLANDYou know, right now actually, this week, we are -- one of our petition creators who's affiliated with the group the Working Families Party, which is a progressive political party that's present in a couple of states, including New York, they have essentially been running a campaign to count every vote in a state legislative race in New York where the race was certified and called closed.
GALLANDBut over 300 ballots hadn't been counted. The margin is very narrow. Two women started a petition to count every vote, held protests in Albany, and late last week an appellate court, agreed with them and said, yeah, a big bunch of those ballots that hadn't been opened need to be opened and counted. And so I think that actually, you know, what -- in -- the way I think about it, we need more and more engaged democracy, more participation, not less.
GALLANDAnd for many people, signing a petition is the first thing that they can do to get involved. You know, I have two 18-month-old twin girls. To me, it's sort of taking a moment in the craziness of the morning when we're all rushing around trying to get out the door to actually make my voice heard on an issue I care about online is actually kind of a profound moment. But then I would also say it can't be the last moment. So one thing that we've really focused on at SignOn.org is making the petition signing or the petition creating the first step in a real campaign for change.
GALLANDWe believe that staying online is not enough. So, you know, we had an amazing campaign that was being run by some folks in Northern Minnesota really calling attention to the dangers of sulfide mining. And they delivered their petition by sled dog to St. Paul. And that's, I think, an example of the kind of creativity and the vibrancy and the real offline, what we call it, real world engagement that many of our petition creators and members have shown. So it's not just signing and stopping.
NNAMDIAlex Howard, it doesn't seem to me that from the point of view of the person who's signing the petition, it's any more difficult to sign it if somebody presents it to you at your front door than it is if your -- if it shows up in your inbox, or is it?
HOWARDWell, that depends if you're home or not, right?
NNAMDIThis is true.
HOWARDAnd there's always an interesting question about whether polls are representative or not, whether they include mobile phones. There's a whole generation of people -- I bridge generation X and Y coming up behind me that don't have landlines, right? So how do you poll them? They may not be accessible to have someone sign a petition. And if you're talking about people who literally live on their phones, then having access to that kind of activism is important. There are two things that, I think, people have touched upon.
HOWARDFirst, I did want to kind of go back to with respect to the ease of involvement, and that's important. If you talk to congressional staffers about the impact of online activism, they put in it context with other kinds of activism. The most significant thing for a member of Congress is typically when a constituent comes in person to an office and says, this is something I care about, followed by a phone call from a constituent, a letter from a constituent and an email from constituent. And all the way down, you get to online petitions.
HOWARDAnd these are real challenges about the identification of whether someone is from their district or not. This is something that, I think, is a different issue in government because if you talk about represented democracy, you're there to represent the people than it is in corporations and particularly media corporations that are maybe more affected by widespread reactions online. Indeed, the story of 2012 in many ways were widespread viral activism that -- and often kicked off by Change.org or (word?), different kinds of petition sites.
HOWARDAnd we can get to what happened with the White House, since some of their petition is due at the end of the year, that then had offline effects. And what's really interesting is to extent to which in an e-petition or any other kind of activism online coverts people to then participating in the more meaningful and frankly more difficult kinds of involvement in democracy that they might not otherwise.
NNAMDIDelegate Parrott, what reaction have you been getting to MDPetitions.com? Do you have other clients who want to start online petitions, and what are your plans for the site?
PARROTTWell, that's a great question. The biggest thing is to try and make it local and to try and bring down the cost, so that it's actually something that can happen at the local county level. And I've had different calls from different states who are interested 'cause one thing that's a little bit different about MDPetitions.com is that it actually does have the rule of law behind it. So it actually can force something to the ballot. And so there have been people who are interested. We are interested in working with anyone that would like to get those petitions going and trying to help them in their process.
NNAMDIDelegate Neil Parrott represents Washington County in the Maryland House of Delegates. He is chairman of MDPetitions.com. Delegate Parrott, thank you so much for joining us.
PARROTTThank you. It's a pleasure to be on the show.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join the conversation at 800-433-8850. Do you think online petitions make it easier for people to lobby their government for a change? 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday, or go to our website, kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing the rise of online petitions with Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn.org, Alex Howard, Washington correspondent with O'Reilly Media, and Megan Lubin, Washington communications manager with Change.org. Jim in Falls Church, Va., asks, Megan, "What is the business model for Change.org and other similar free services? How do they make money?"
LUBINSure. Great question. So Change.org is what's called a social enterprise. It's part of a sort of up and coming class of companies, a growing number of groups that leverage the power of business for social good. And actually, if you go to our website, you'll see that we are a certified B corporation. That's essentially an organization that certifies companies based on what I just mentioned, if their business model is geared towards socials good rather than profit. And we make our money on an ad model, very similar to Facebook and Twitter and Google, a lot of other tech platforms.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Elizabeth in Bethesda, Md. Elizabeth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ELIZABETHOh, thanks for taking my call. I guess, similarly to the previous caller, what exactly is the relationship between Change.org and MoveOn.org? And I ask because I was in a conversation with my neighbor. A bunch of people around here signed a petition -- I think it was on Change.org -- to move the middle school and high school start times later, you know. And then she just started getting tons of mail from the Obama campaign, and she was just sure that her information had been sold and was upset about it. And I was just curious if you could talk about that.
NNAMDIAnna Galland, would you like to start about the relationship between Change.org and MoveOn.org?
GALLANDYeah. Sure. So thanks for the call and the question. So I can say there's no sort of sharing of information ever between MoveOn.org and Change.org or any other entity for that matter. SignOn.org, you know, which is our open online petition site, where anyone can start their own petition for free, is nonprofit, and it's proudly progressive.
GALLANDWe never sell people's information. We never rent people's information. We don't get people's information out, period. That's part of the long term sort of core covenant that we have with members and users of our site. When you sign a -- when you start or sign a petition on SignOn.org, that does sort of bring you into the MoveOn.org community, but you can unsubscribe from that at any time.
NNAMDICare to expand on that at all, Megan Lubin?
LUBINYeah. Actually, and to expand on that, the -- when you sign a petition as it sounds like your neighbor started and probably signed some petitions as well, she is then given or he is given the option to what we call opt-in to another organization's mailing list. The person can choose or choose not to opt into that list and hear more from that organization. So that's -- my guess is that's how she ended up hearing from the Obama campaign. But very similarly to SignOn, there is no selling of information, personal information without explicit permission from the user.
NNAMDIAdding to the perception, Elizabeth, that the Obama campaign's digital fingerprints are just about everywhere you could possibly look. Elizabeth, thank you very much for your call. And speaking of the White House, Alex Howard, the White House made a splash when it started its own online petition site called We the People. It promises that if you get enough signatures, the president will respond. What's been the reaction to this site?
HOWARDWell, it's been a slow burn actually. The site -- this part of the White House, it's whitehouse.gov/wethepeople -- has been around since the end of 2011. And it didn't get as much attention for the first part of last year. Certainly, people who work in the open government world are interested by it. It was part of the United States' contribution to the open government partnership, and the code from it actually was open-source, something that the president said what happens so that other countries could use it of they wanted to.
HOWARDIt was modeled upon the United Kingdom's e-petition system which is also common to the similar kinds of criticism that you've mentioned. And what's happened is it actually has now come to the attention of mainstream media. Right after the election, petitions spiked and specifically around secession and then spiked around gun control, guns laws after the Newtown tragedy.
NNAMDIWell, allow me to interrupt at that point because it would appear that that spike in petitions at the White House website over gun control elicited a response from President Obama that sounded something like this.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMAHi, everybody. We started We the People so that you could directly petition to your government on the matters you care about the most, so that you could make your voice heard. And in the days since the heartbreaking tragedy in Newtown, Conn., hundreds of thousands of you from all 50 states have signed petitions asking us to take serious steps to address the epidemic of gun violence in this country. So I just wanted to take a minute today to respond and let you know we hear you.
NNAMDIAnd then goes on to say some of the things he would like to do. Alex, the petitions on that White House site range from the serious to the bizarre, from 33 different petitions that you just mentioned calling for gun laws to one asking the government to build a "Star Wars"-style Death Star and that also on the reply but not from the president himself. How many signatures does it take to get a White House response, and how many petitions have reached that threshold?
HOWARDOh, boy. That's a good question. So...
NNAMDIWe checked with the D.C. voting rights petition. It's only got 3,500 petitions so far.
HOWARDWell, if you tweet a link to it, maybe it'll go up, Kojo. The -- if it's something you're -- the station decides to put its weight behind in terms of getting attention, that's actually the key with these, is that they need to get support from people's personal networks to get more visibility and direct links to them. There's...
NNAMDIAnd I think we asked them whether or not they'd use Change.org and they hadn't because there was a perception that it would cost them to do that, would it?
LUBINThat is an incorrect perception. Our petition platform is completely free and anybody can start or sign a petition.
HOWARDThe threshold is 25,000 signatures. Some of the most popular ones have received quite a bit more than that. The -- I think, the previously established threshold got moved up again and again, I think, because of the unprecedented attention and usage that the platform has gotten over the past couple of months, particularly now that it's gotten on to cable news and it's being talked about. A lot of journalists become aware of it. It's become a target of mockery but also a lot of use, that we're going to see that usage has spiked.
HOWARDI think I would be surprised if there weren't more than 5 million users there now and a commensurate a number of signatures. And that probably means they're going to move the thresholds up again. This is close to going mainstream, which is very exciting for something like this. And what's really fascinating about that is then you're going to get things like "Star Wars" in there. It's an open platform.
HOWARDThe White House has actually taken considerable political risk by making it open to whatever people want to put into there, including sometimes things that the president and the White House can't do anything about that they have to respond and say, actually, we can address this, and other ones that are politically inconvenient for them to address. Previous to the president's response, the most significant one of those was actually -- just about a year ago, I don't know if you remember, the fury here in Washington over the Stop Online Piracy Act...
HOWARD...and the Protect IP Act, the two petitions that went on the White House about those bills actually earned an official response which affected the discussion in Washington quite a bit because then the White House has taken a position on these bills which they hadn't previously publicly done. And it does appear that the e-petition platform played some role in that.
HOWARDWhat's interesting, too, is if you look at the statistics the White House shared last September -- I think they'll be coming out with some more soon -- is that many of the participants are actually happy with their responses, a majority of them, in fact, which is not something I frankly expected. I thought people would be frustrated that they weren't being heard.
HOWARDIn fact, the opposite has been true and that they are actually coming back to participate more. There are open petitions that have been open now for months and months and months -- I'm watching one very carefully -- around open access to information, something we'll talk about later in the show...
HOWARD...because the White House does not, in fact, have a deadline to respond to a given e-petition, something that's actually related to their -- some of their staffing constraints and to the fact that if it goes to actual policy, they have to engage the people engaged with that.
NNAMDIHere is Errol (sp?) in Washington, D.C. Errol, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ERROLThank you, Kojo, for taking my call. I recently became a member of Change.org and received one of the online petitions. By the way, it was all by BlackBerry. But what I would like to say, I was very, very moved to participate in the petition for the pardoning of the Wilmington 10 in Wilmington, N.C...
ERROL...because that brought something -- a historic event that had brought something to my attention, which I had long forgotten, but it was a tremendous injustice brought against the 10 defendants who...
NNAMDIIn the late 1960s, Rev. Ben Chavis and the Wilmington 10. Go ahead, please. You can Google it.
ERROLYes, indeed. Yes, indeed. And that was what I did. And I signed a petition. And then I think it was Dec. 31, Gov. Beverly Perdue signed the pardon for the Wilmington 10. It was an injustice that was corrected, that was long overdue. But I can only wonder if back then there was some type of means of electronic petitioning instead of the door-to-door petitioning because I live in Maryland. That's a place in Wilmington, Del. I probably would never have been reached. But Change.org (unintelligible).
NNAMDIGlad you talked about that because I'm going to ask Anna and Megan, how do online petitions empower people to talk to their government or other local governments in a way that they couldn't or didn't until now? First you, Megan.
LUBINAbsolutely. You know, I often think about what I, as a teenager or as a young person, would've done with the platform like Change.org, who I would've petitioned, what I would've asked for. We talk about historical incidents like the Wilmington 10, but actually, our histories of non-online activism, of only offline activism is much more recent than that.
LUBINTo your question, I think the, you know, the smartest companies, governments, government agencies, whoever it is that is the target, sees a petition on Change.org or somewhere else as almost a customer service tool, as hearing directly from their members or constituents, and I think that that's sort of an area where we've really innovated and we've actually revolutionized the conversation between a government agency and their constituent or a member of Congress and their constituent.
LUBINMore and more, we see very successful petitions and petition strategies almost making a hero out of the target, giving them opportunity to do the right thing, very positive framing. I think the -- so those are some of the most successful petitions that I've seen. And at the end of the day, what you're doing is you're enhancing the conversation between a customer and a corporate border, whoever it may be.
NNAMDIWell, Anna, before you respond, let me add something to it because you've just taken over as executive director at MoveOn.org as part of a big change in the group's operating model. In the past, your staff identified issues to pursue and created campaigns by reaching out to supporters. Now you're adopting a crowdsourcing model where online petitions created by the public drive the agenda. And the staff supports those petition drives.
NNAMDICan you explain the thinking behind that switch and whether or not it had anything to do with my previous question about petitions empowering people to talk to the -- their governments in ways that they couldn't or didn't until now?
GALLANDSure. So let me first say just on the question of how does -- how do online petitions empower people to talk to their government, and, you know, how can we be sure that these voices that are being aggregated out there by the different petition platforms are really having an impact?
GALLANDAnd I'll just say for SignOn.org, which is, again, a project of MoveOn.org, we put a lot of energy into making sure that our electronic delivery of signatures was very well thought through, that we're going to the right addresses, that we're bundling the signatures together in the most impactful way so that people's comments are floated to the top, things like that.
GALLANDSo just as a sort of baseline of what we're trying to do, we owe it to our users and our members to make sure that their voices are being delivered in that baseline way. And then whatever they can do on top of that -- offline in the real world, with an in-person delivery, you know, garnering local media attention -- that's fabulous and important, but we've ensured that at least the sort of online signatures are delivered as effectively as possible.
GALLANDSo then, Kojo, to your question, you know, yeah, MoveOn is in the midst of, I think, is a really exciting strategic shift. So we've been realizing over the past year-and-a-half that as we've been experimenting with the SignOn.org model of putting members in the driver seat and allowing them to float to the top, their ideas, their knowledge of the local or the state or the national political context that our small national campaign staff could never sort of match, that there's this tremendous untapped potential in putting them, again, in the driver seat.
GALLANDSo what we're doing is essentially flipping our traditional model on its head. We'll still be a strong, strategic resource and voice in our national politics. That won't change. What is changing is that the source of the ideas, we're really, you know, eliciting ideas as much as we can from our members. And just one quick anecdote about how powerful this can be.
GALLANDLast year, Robert Applebaum, who's a lawyer in upstate New York, started a petition at SignOn.org that got over 1 million signers supporting a bill for student loan forgiveness, which was directly cited by President Obama when he enacted a change in policy that has reduced student loan debt for millions of Americans. That policy was not something that was on the radar of political elites in this country.
GALLANDThat idea was sort of a bubble-up from the grass roots idea that caught people's imaginations. And it wouldn't have, you know, that change would not have happened. That sort of approach to economic justice in this country would not have been embraced if not for Robert's insight and his sort of authentic voice. So we think that putting that forward is one way to make sure that in the next 15 years, MoveOn as a sort of force for progress in this country can be even more effective than it's been in the last 15 years.
HOWARDI do want to just throw one more -- maybe this is a wrench in the works, but it's important to think about the context of these petitions beyond the borders of the United States too. There are some possible negative outcomes of collecting large lists of people who support political activeness goals, and I'm specifically thinking about places like China or Iran or anywhere else where a government might be quite interested in knowing who supported a given cause.
HOWARDIt -- I think that as these become more prominent, become bigger forces in political discussion, it'll be quite, I think, essential for the information security of the platforms to protect the people who are signing on. Otherwise, it puts them at risk.
NNAMDIWhich brings me to this email from Annie: "I've heard that signing an online petition is an unsafe way of having your opinions heard because once you've signed, you're even more vulnerable to hackers." Is this true, Megan?
LUBINI would say at least in the case of Change.org -- well, first, I'll say that we have a wonderful team of engineers who work out in San Francisco near Silicon Valley, about 50 of them, and there's a team, actually, dedicated to exactly what Annie is talking about, the security of the platform and the security of Change.org users. And I would say we've actually had some pretty direct experience with issues that I think she is referring to.
LUBINIn 2011, we were actually the victims of a hacking attack, of a Chinese hacking attack, as a result of a petition around Ai Weiwei, and we sort of experienced firsthand what it feels like to have to go through an attack like that. So I bring up that example to say that it's potential experiences like that that then end up as an incentive for us to constantly be innovating and constantly be thinking of ways to secure the information of our members. And I can say that, right now, that information is quite secure.
GALLANDYeah. I wouldn't add much to that for -- on sort of SignOn.org's behalf, except to say that I think that, you know, our business model is that we rely on small donors to power our work. We have over -- the average donations to MoveOn is $20, and so part of our covenant with those members is if you take action with us, we will protect your information and we will put, you know, all the resources that we have on the sort of software engineering front, on the legal front and whatnot, will be brought to bear to ensure that by taking action with us, you're doing so in a secure fashion.
GALLANDAnd, actually, Kojo, if I could add one other...
GALLAND...quick thing. Just thinking back to this really thoughtful question about, you know, how do we ensure that the organizing that's happening in these forums is really connecting with our -- with the decision-makers, which, in some moments, you know, are corporate leaders, in other moments are elected officials, I think that actually you're seeing an increased awareness by especially our elected officials, that the campaigns that are being brought to bear -- you know, in our case, by SignOn.org users, backed by MoveOn's national campaign apparatus -- that that matters and that they have to pay attention to it.
GALLANDSo, for example, just in the last few weeks, in Michigan, where I'm based, Gov. Rick Snyder, who's a Republican, ended up in the wake of the Newtown massacre vetoing a bill that would have allowed concealed firearms to be carried in schools and other "gun-free zones." And, you know, this essentially is the kind of thing where you would imagine if Rick Snyder, who's a Republican, hears from a bunch of MoveOn members, he's not going to respond.
GALLANDHe's going to, you know, speak to other forums. But he replied to the more than 8,000 signers in writing, with a detailed sort of accounting of how he'd been thinking about this. And I think you're going to see more and more of that. You -- it's not just, you know, the kind of usual suspects who are always talking back to their constituents. It's more and more basically all of our elected officials need to be paying attention to the kinds of campaigns that are starting online.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this Tech Tuesday conversation on the rise of online petitions. But we're still taking your calls, 800-433-8850. Do you think online petitions make it easier for people to lobby their governments for change? You can send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to this Tech Tuesday conversation on the rise of online petitions, or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, and there you can see a video of President Obama's response to the gun control petitions, the White House response to other petitions and much, much more at our website, kojoshow.org.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Alex Howard, Washington correspondent of O'Reilly Media. Megan Lubin is Washington communications manager with change.org, and Anna Galland is executive director of moveon.org. And we talked about hackers earlier. Let's talk for a second about hactivist, Alex Howard, because you mentioned that we'd be talking about open access later in this broadcast.
NNAMDIAnd there are those who feel that in the digital world the essence of democracy is open access, and one of those people was now the late Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide while he was being prosecuted. Could you talk a little bit about what you feel the implications of that are for the open access movement?
HOWARDWell, I think it's certainly putting a lot more attention on it, and that's to its benefit. This is something that has been a slow burn for decades. And I think in this particular case, part of the conversation should be around access to research funded by taxpayer dollars. This is something that the National Institutes of Health have been progressive on. This something -- as I mentioned, there's a petition for the White House to consider it.
NNAMDIHe downloaded documents from...
NNAMDI...JSTOR, which was owned by MIT, and as a result of it, found himself looking at jail time even though JSTOR did not want him prosecuted. Apparently MIT may have felt differently. Certainly the prosecutors in this case apparently felt differently.
HOWARDYes. Their -- he was prosecuted under some computer crime laws, which have quite stiff penalties for certain kinds of access. And he downloaded quite a few research articles. Now, he had actual access to them. The question is bulk and then whether he intended to redistribute them or not. He actually returned the articles in question. But the U.S. attorney in Massachusetts kept pressing the case.
HOWARDThere are some questions about prosecutorial discussion and justice that are probably worth having a discussion around, particularly with respect to hacking. And I put hacking in air quotes for people who are listening who can't hear. There's a very long tradition of people tinkering in the United States with technology, with homebrew computing, with the whole generation of makers, now people who are creating new kinds of uses for technology and people who are spending their times in garages with their cars, too.
HOWARDAnd corporations haven't always reacted well to that. And then sometimes with government aid, they have cracked down on that. As a born-and-bred Yankee, I have some sympathy for people tinkering. And indeed, Steve Jobs and Mr. Wozniak, who founded Apple, might well have been prosecuted under some of these same laws and never gotten to actually found Apple.
HOWARDThe homebrew computing movement that Apple grew out of is very much founded upon taking things apart and see how they work. Now, that's a bit different than open access and access to information. But Aaron is going to be, I think, a symbol of missed opportunity because of the things he might have contributed. He's true computer savant.
HOWARDHe was doing things at the age of 14 that I will never do, that many people will never do in terms of contributing to some of the fundamental standards of the Web, ways to subscribe to websites. He was one of the co-founders of Reddit, which is, of course, an incredibly dynamic site now. And he was collaborating with someone I know well because of his work with O'Reilly Media and open government, Carl Malamud, who is also an open information advocate, public.resource.org.
NNAMDIBut the publicity around all of this, including his suicide, do you think is likely to be a boost for the open access movement, tragic as it is?
HOWARDI think it has that potential, certainly.
NNAMDIAnd we were talking about corporations. Well, we are talking about governments earlier, Megan Lubin. And now it's, since Alex brought it up, time to talk about corporations because online petitions are sometimes also directed at corporations or private businesses. Talk about how 14-year-old Julia Bluhm took on Seventeen magazine.
LUBINSure. Julia Bluhm is actually one of my favorite petition starters in my time at Change.org. I'm not to play favorites, but she is incredibly inspiring for the following reasons. She was, I believe, 14 or 15 when she started her petition on Change.org, right about, I guess, nine -- eight, nine months ago. She's a ballerina. And she and her friends did read teen magazines, like Seventeen mag and Teen Vogue.
LUBINAnd the images that they saw in the pages of those magazines were in no way a reflection of even the dancers that she went to class with on a regular basis. What she asked Seventeen for and hoped that others would follow was one Photoshop-free spread each month to make the images in the magazines more relatable to women. And I don't think she anticipated the outcome that she ended up getting. And -- but the petition, of course, was widely popular on the site, widely popular with our users.
LUBINShe ended up traveling to New York City. She secured a meeting with Seventeen magazine's editor-in-chief. She staged a petition delivery. And the outcome of that campaign was actually Seventeen magazine doing something they've never done before, printing what they referred to as a Body Peace Treaty that basically articulated their commitment to girls that they would be showing Photoshop-free bodies in the magazine from them on.
NNAMDIAnna, we're running out of time, but how does your organization decide whether to put your muscle and your staff behind a petition that someone starts on your site?
GALLANDThat's a great question. Just before I answer, I want to just quickly say, going back to Aaron Swartz because I don't know if folks know, but his funeral was actually this morning outside of Chicago. Many of our close friends and allies were at that funeral. He was very close to many of the staff on -- in the MoveOn, sort of, extended community. I mean, our heart just goes out to his whole family and sort of extended network.
GALLANDIt's just -- it's been a very hard couple of days for many folks who cared about, sort of, insuring that as tech becomes more and more powerful that we have policies and norms in place to sort of keep up with what's possible and really allow information to flow freely, not to kind of, you know, to criminalize it in the way that the Massachusetts U.S. attorney has done.
GALLANDAnd there is a petition at signon.org that was started by just, you know, over the trends and we didn't -- we don't know the person, calling for the dismissal of the U.S. attorney, similar to the petition that's happening at We the People. And so we're seeing a lot of energy around that. And then to -- I think the very thoughtful question, Kojo, that you asked, we -- so we have a pretty interesting, scalable way of trying to detect progressive member energy, a progressive energy around the petitions that come in to our site.
GALLANDSo we actually will survey our members on any petition that gets over 20 signers, which is a far lower bar than the 25,000 on We the People. And what we're doing there is looking for sort of grassroots progressive energy. Do we see evidence of what we call virality, of people passing this petition on and successfully recruiting signers? I mean, if so, we'll keep going broader. We're looking for the pool of people who are excited about that campaign because the goal of what we're trying to do here is to connect this petition, this campaign to the people that are most passionate about it.
GALLANDSo one interesting thing for another Tech Tuesday in the world is sort of the role of big data here of how we're using advance analytics to ensure that we're connecting people with the causes that most move them, that they're compelled by. You know, so if you care about gun violence, we want you to see the campaigns in your community on gun violence (unintelligible)...
NNAMDIThat's one of our favorite topics in these big data. But we're almost out of time, but I have to ask you, Megan Lubin, to respond to this email we got from Gwen in Bethesda. "I've used Change.org extensively, and I love it. However, I recently decided I wanted to stop using Facebook. And when I've tried to sign petitions, I'm no longer able because you must be logged in to Facebook to do so. Frankly, I'm a little upset. Why can't I sign in and use the site independently of Facebook?"
LUBINUnderstandably. Maybe we'll use shows like this in the future as sort of a Change.org customer-service-helpdesk-type forum. But I'm so glad you mentioned that. And it's -- I'm actually going to personally flag it for our tech team. But it's an example of, you know, a glitch that I know many tech platforms face as they grow. We've got a team of folks who handle exactly cases just like that sort of user-experience glitches as you move about the site. And I'm sure that's one that will be flagged and dealt with in any way.
NNAMDIGwen, your Tech Tuesday petition has been heard. Megan Lubin is Washington communications manager with change.org.
NNAMDIAlex Howard is Washington correspondent with O'Reilly Media, and Anna Galland is executive director of moveon.org. Thank you all for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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