This story, produced during the 2018 Web Summit in Lisbon, is published in partnership with Ulyces.
On the day of her first music lesson, in a New Delhi supermarket on a hot April 2005 day, Laxmi Agarwal could already imagine her bow in her hands. On the way home to Tughlaq, the young teenager was snapped back to earth by a friend of her brother’s. Soberly, the man twice her age asked for her hand in marriage. When she refused, he threw acid in her face and ran away.
Laxmi was rescued by a taxi driver and quickly taken to the hospital in Safdarjang. The doctors tried nine times to stop the acid eating away at her skin. The last operation put her on respiratory aid for four days. She survived. It was a victory for her family and for all acid attack victims, for whom she would later become an advocate.
Not long ago, it was possible to legally purchase acid in just about any store in India, where there are some 1,000 acid attacks each year. Eight years after having suffered the consequences herself, Laxmi Agarwal decided to fight back. She launched a campaign on the petition platform Change.org and forced the Indian Supreme Court to act by dint of 27,000 signatures and nationwide protests. Today, only a few stores are authorized to sell acid, and it’s impossible to buy it without special permission.
“Thanks to a tiny little petition written in New Delhi, this remarkable woman has allowed a marginalized group in Indian society to speak out and to proudly protect future generations,” vice-president of Change.org Paula Peters says, smiling. And Peters has more than a few stories like Laxmi’s.
Uniting to do good
In the beginning of the 2010s, a 26-year-old Paula Peters was working for Greenpeace as a consultant in the creation of Germany’s first petition platform. At the time, the Arab Spring showed her how civic engagement and the unifying force of social networks could have an impact. Peters insisted that the environmental NGO use the Internet to mobilize people.
But just when the platform was ready to go online, Greenpeace got cold feet. “They thought they would lose too much control if they allowed that under their brand,” she says. Helpless, she watched her project die. By chance, Change.org contacted her six months later and asked her to lead its German branch. “What’s funny is, Greenpeace ended up launching the platform I’d helped create two and a half years before. But it never worked because it came too late.”
At the beginning, Paula Peters doubted that the movement could spread outside the United States, where civic engagement is particularly strong. “But I was wrong!” she says happily. “It worked everywhere. People, wherever they are, are hungry for freedom, having a space to organize and giving voice to themselves and others.”
Under her direction, Change.org went from 60,000 to 1.5 million users in a single year. As the years passed, she continued to move up until she became vice-president of the entire organization. Although her initial doubts have long since vanished, she’s aware of the limits of her work. “We all started out as idealists, believing that the Internet was a force for good. But it’s also often used by authoritarian powers.”
Now, as benevolence is being increasingly advocated within the technology industry, Change.org’s global action is more than ever at the forefront of the Web Summit. In the past few months, the giants of the web have made altruistic resolutions. On the Centre Stage in Lisbon’s Altice Arena, France’s Secretary of State for Digital Affairs Mounir Mahjoubi was not to be outdone. He called for an “Internet in service of human beings and the planet, where its performance is at the service of values.”
That doesn’t protect Change.org from its critics. According to them, its brand of armchair activism is an excuse for a good conscience without any real action. The accusation of “slacktivism” is as old as the Internet, and for Paula Peters, nothing is as simple as people want it to be. “The first step is easy, true. But I’ve never seen a campaign succeed just because people signed the petition,” she argues.
To do that, a motivated group needs to unite a community of Internet users ready to mobilize. Most people doubt their power and believe they hold no sway. “It’s our job to show them, more and more, that they can do it, by showing them examples since Change.org was born,” Paula Peters says.
From blogging to petitions
The story of Change.org is inseparable from the story of its founder, Ben Rattray. Rattray grew up in Santa Barbara, California. As a child, he imagined strutting down Wall Street, “dressed in a double-breasted suit.” He dreamed of a fortune that would one day be his, which he considered back then the measure of success. He had it all planned out: at 35 he would retire from finance and begin a career as a politician.
The unexpected and dramatic shift hit him in his final year at Stanford, where he studied political and economic science. One of his brothers came out, providing Rattray with a reflection that would change him forever. “When I came home for Christmas vacation, my little brother told me something that took me totally by surprise: he was gay. Then he told me that when someone hasn’t come out yet, the hardest thing was seeing good people all around you refusing to fight discrimination against LGBT people – people like me,” he says.
Ashamed, Ben Rattray quit his studies and set out on what he calls “the pursuit of effective collective action.” When he witnessed Facebook’s booming arrival, Rattray understood the importance of social networks. So in 2007, he created Change.org.
As Rattray tells it, the first three years of the young company were characterized by sacrifice and failure. At the beginning, Change.org was a platform that bloggers and journalists used to post articles on the environment, social injustice and human rights. “Back then there was just a little tool for starting petitions, developed with whatever means we had at hand. More than anything it was a way to show that you liked an article.” A gadget, basically. But Rattray quickly noticed that people were using the site almost exclusively for the petitions tool he’d thrown in almost as an afterthought. He was on to something.
The facts proved him right. In Cape Town, South Africa, Nosizwe Nomsa Bizana died on 16 December 2007 of meningitis caused by HIV contracted in a horrific corrective rape. “In South Africa, lesbians are raped by people pretending to ‘cure’ them of their homosexuality,” Paula Peters explains. Months later, racked with grief, her fiancée Ndumie Funda created the organization Luleki Sizwe in homage to her partner but also to a close friend, Luleka Makiwane, who had suffered the same fate.
But Ndumie didn’t stop there. In 2010, she launched a petition on Change.org that called on her country’s government to establish a commission to investigate these barbaric acts of corrective rape. She followed “step by step” the model suggested by the site. Her message posted from an old computer in Cape Town soon worked miracles. She followed the same process with Avaaz.org to spread her message even farther. In the end, she gathered almost a million signatures.
An unprecedented movement was underway. “People as vulnerable as black lesbians in South Africa went out in the streets together to protest before the South African government,” Peters says. Under pressure, the government modified its policy and launched a national investigation on the subject. That’s how Rattray realized the untapped potential of his platform. He completely revamped the site, giving precedence to online petitions.
Building more bridges
Today, in addition to the fact that it allows any citizen to start a petition, the platform also organizes campaigns for different organizations around the world, like Amnesty International. In France, Change.org appeared on search engines in 2012 and now counts more than 12 million users in the country.
The future of Change.org will be marked by the same questions that gave birth to it: what impact can technology have on democracy? How do you change people’s mentalities for the good of society? Fake news and the polarization that cages Internet users in their own beliefs remain major challenges for Change.org, even more so than for other platforms.
Ben Rattray also wants to move even more toward solidarity, inviting the tech sector as a whole to do the same. On Change.org, the majority of its 25,000 campaigns launched each month are local, and most of them have to do with the social responsibilities of companies. “I think there’s an incredible opportunity there, not just for encouraging civic participation at a local level, but for highlighting subjects like the environment, homelessness, human trafficking,” Rattray explains at a Web Summit round table on 8 November. “We need to build bridges and solidarity between people, and to do that, we need to offer them themes that bring us all together.”
Change.org now claims 30,860 victories in 196 countries. Their influence is largely local, but sometimes national and even global, as with the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign: more than a million people supported the young Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014. More recently, the campaign “Justice for Noura” also went viral.
In 2017, Noura Hussein, an 18-year-old Sudanese woman forced into marriage, was sentenced to death for having killed her rapist. On 26 June 2018, after a months-long campaign led by Change.org with 1.7 million signatures, the Sudanese court overturned the death penalty for the young girl, commuting it instead to a five-year prison sentence. Once again, Change.org declared victory, this time along with 1.7 million Internet users. It was one more proof that the organization has a considerable positive impact on the real world, one digital petition at a time.