In its community guidelines “Don’ts” list, Change.org — the online petition company — makes clear that hate speech against any group is strictly prohibited.
“We’re fans of free speech, but we don’t allow hate speech,” the site informs users, defining it as “typically the advocacy of beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people based on characteristics such as their age, color, disability, ethnic origin, gender identity, nationality, national origin, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, medical condition, or veteran status.”
So when a user from Fort Worth, Texas posted a petition three weeks ago demanding that Caitlyn Jenner be stripped of her 1976 Olympic gold medal — based on the user’s conclusion that if “she has always believed herself to be truly female,” she “therefore, was in violation of committee rules regarding women competing in men’s sports and vice versa,” — users might easily have assumed the petition would be immediately taken down.
More than 15,000 signatures and an International Olympic Committee response later, the petition remains on the Change.org site. Weeks after it was first posted, the company appended a note to the petition affirming that while it had “received a high number of user flags,” the system used by the public to alert the company to potential Terms of Service violations, “Change.org is an open platform and doesn’t endorse any petitions.”
The same company guidelines also explicitly state that the site will not “tolerate abuse, stalking, threats, trolling, or any form of bullying.” So, it seemed obvious that when ThinkProgress discovered an 11-month old petition from a Latvian user urging a Sint Maarten-based online forum for computer game hackers to ban a user because “he’s a homosexual,” it would have to go.
But nearly a week after ThinkProgress flagged the petition as inappropriate, relying on the company’s community policing process, the petition remained active and open. It was only removed after a media inquiry was sent to the company asking about this specific petition and a series of other petitions that appeared to violate the site’s terms of service.
Muslims, undocumented immigrants, LGBT people, people who may be HIV positive, and women who have reported sexual assaults have also faced the sort of hate speech and bullying the site claims to prohibit. At least one petition attacking each of those groups remained on the site even after being brought to the company’s attention. And just last week, in the wake of a racially motivated mass murder at a historically black church in Charleston, a user from Pennsylvania launched a petition defending the flying of the Confederate flag at the South Carolina capitol.
As the nation and Internet grapple with questions about how to balance free speech with protecting privacy and guarding against online bullying and harassment, Change.org presents an interesting case study. Like YouTube, Twitter, Reddit, and other Internet fora, Change.org faces daily decisions on what content to permit and what content to remove. But because of its evolution from progressive platform to open petition site, the company has faced some unique challenges as it grapples with the definition of “hate speech” — and several minority group activists and former employees have not been happy with the results.
‘A Business Model For Social Good’
The presence of these right-wing-attack petitions may come as a surprise to some users who share a common misconception that Change.org is a progressive non-profit website. While the name and URL give the impression of being a non-profit, it is not.
“We are social enterprise and that’s because we have an ambitious mission — to empower people everywhere to create the change they want to see — and to scale that mission, we need a sustainable business model. For the foreseeable future, all of our revenue will be reinvested in the company,” a company spokeswoman explained to ThinkProgress, but the company hopes to someday turn a profit for its investors.
The company plays up its status as a certified B Corporation — a distinction given to companies that “meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency — and claims to utilize “a business model for social good.”
Originally, the site had a progressive aim. In 2012 Change.org came under fire from the AFL-CIO for promoting anti-union petitions for for two education reform organizations: Stand for Children and StudentsFirst. According to its IRS filings, StudentsFirst — the group created by former DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee — paid Change.org more than $1.6 million for “membership services” in fiscal year 2012–2013. After the relationship came to light, Change.org said it had “listened closely to the community of Change.org users, who have voiced their concerns in response to this decision” and decided to end its work for both groups.
Soon after, leaked internal memos revealed that the company, which once accepted advertisements only from progressive organizations that share the company’s values and worldview, had decided to adopt an “open advertising policy in which determinations about which advertisements we’ll accept are based on the content of the ad, not the group doing the advertising.” That meant the site would now accept ads, and money, from “organizations that represent all points of view, including those with which [Change.org’s leaders] personally (and strongly) disagree.”
Company founder and CEO Ben Rattray defended the changes, writing at the Huffington Post: “If we weren’t open to everyone, and if we limited access based on a set of political viewpoints, we would undercut the power of our petition creators and users. We would be perceived as an advocacy group ourselves, and the media and decision makers would often typecast petition creators as players in our supposed issue agenda, rather than the independent agents of change they are.”
Both StudentsFirst and Stand for Children returned to the fold as Change.org customers.
Now free to market its services to political forces of all stripes, Change.org has taken on some very conservative clients and is actively seeking to expand its reach into those circles, to boost its revenue from the right half of the political sphere. The anti-LGBT, pro-climate denial Independent Journal Review is a current sponsor, encouraging petition signers who believe in “common sense conservative news” to register with them.
Change.org has taken more than $108,000 over the past year and a half to expand the supporter lists of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the campaign arm of the House Republicans majority, according to its filings with the Federal Election Commission.
An open “director of business development — DC” position currently advertised on the company’s site seeks someone to “sell Change.org’s advertising and list-building services to industry-leading organizations across the country that focus on issues that resonate with conservative Americans … tap into and grow your existing networks of center-right political campaigns and issue groups in the US to introduce them to Change.org,” and “establish relationships with leading consulting, fundraising, and digital marketing firms on the center/right side of the aisle.”
Kini Schoop, director of media relations for Change.org, told ThinkProgress in an email, “we are not a progressive platform. We are an open platform for people with diverse perspectives to use for change.”
Users who sign liberal-themed petitions allow the company to market itself to progressive organizations as a good way to reach like-minded members — and the same is true for those on the right. “If you were to use Change.org to sign mostly progressive petitions,” Schoop explained, “then you are also more likely to see sponsored petitions from [organizations] that reflect that view. Users who are signing more conservative petitions, are more likely to see a sponsored petition from an organization like the NRCC.”
An Open Internet
David Sullivan is policy and communications director for the Global Network Initiative, a non-profit organization that works to support “freedom of expression and privacy in information and communications technology.”
With the increased attention on the damaging effects of online hate speech, Sullivan said in an email, “Online platforms for user-generated content face difficult dilemmas supporting free expression and combating online harassment, challenges which are multiplied many times over when operating internationally.” To deal with the difficult balance, he noted, “companies can benefit from working closely with human rights organizations to ensure that there is adequate oversight and safeguards in their systems.”
The questions of how to handle hate speech are not unique to Change.org. Sites like YouTube also rely on user policing — but this approach requires significant resources to review flagged content. YouTube says it has staffers doing this 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so it can quickly remove any inappropriate content.
Other more neutral platforms, like Twitter, prohibit illegal activities but allow hate speech. Recently, Twitter changed its violent threats policy to make clear that threats of violence against others and the promotion of violence against others are prohibited (previously it had only barred “direct, specific threats of violence against others”). Last month, Twitter permanently suspended a user described by the Washington Post as “one of the Internet’s most infamous trolls,” after he tweeted seeking funds to help “take out” a civil rights activist.
And even beyond harassment, online companies each take varying approaches as to how they moderate user content.
Facebook is well known for having an aggressive moderation system. Last year, it had to apologize to drag queens and other members of the LGBT community who were suspended due to a strict “real name” policy. On the other hand, a group of users of Reddit — a site famous for supporting almost any type of speech — left the site earlier this year, claiming censorship after some moderators deleted threads they considered to be harassment.
Other sites, especially in the petition space, are less permissive. The progressive non-profit MoveOn operates MoveOn.org Petitions, a similar platform but exclusively for progressive causes. Nick Berning, MoveOn.org’s communications director, told ThinkProgress in an email that if a similar anti-LGBT petition were to be posted on MoveOn Petitions and brought to their attention, “we’d take it down immediately, because it would be inconsistent with our community’s values and violate our Terms of Service.”
Berning observed that “the bigger distinction between Change and MoveOn isn’t in what we take down — it’s what we choose to promote. MoveOn Petitions is an explicitly progressive platform, and we only solicit and promote (via things like emails to members, expert campaign support, etc.) progressive petition campaigns.” His organization, therefore, “would never solicit, lean into, or amplify a right-wing petition. Change.org on the other hand is a for-profit that explicitly markets itself to conservatives and doesn’t just host right-wing petitions, it actively promotes them. It is a fundamentally different approach.”
Credo Mobilize, another progressive petition site operated by the progressive CREDO Mobile company, says it expects it will “probably see campaigns we don’t agree with and campaigns that might seem a bit random,” but that it will “work hard to disable campaigns that come to our attention and are defamatory, discriminatory or illegal.” As Murshed Zaheed, Credo’s deputy political director, explained in an email, “whenever we see campaigns that use ‘hate speech,’ they are immediately marked as inappropriate and suppressed from the platform.” He added that he and other colleagues “are personally looking over new petitions every morning,” and usually remove inappropriate petitions “right away.”
Todd Heywood, a Change.org contractor back when the company was officially progressive, believes the company’s evolution toward the “open platform” model has led some progressives to MoveOn and CREDO — a move he fears has created a segmenting that may dilute the strength of the message. “When you spread out the petitions over three agencies instead of one, you dilute your reach and you dilute your message. You’ll have more petitions, but you’ll have less participation. It will become less effective as a tool — and an organizing tool in particular — because people won’t have this one-stop shop.”
But for some groups on the left, that’s a risk they are willing to take. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told ThinkProgress in an email: “There are many other vendors and partners who provide the same services as Change.org, and that are also aligned with our values and goals. In this case, that allows us to keep our business with firms that aren’t working to undermine our members and the communities they serve.”
‘Making Money Off The Backs Of The LGBT Community’
The international attention the anti-Jenner petition garnered was enough to draw a response from the International Olympic Committee: A statement from its communications director affirming that “Bruce Jenner won his [sic] gold medal in the 1976 Olympic Games and there is no issue for the IOC.” This response generated even more attention and widespread international news coverage.
Though the petition is carefully worded to not appear overtly anti-trans, going so far as to include “congratulations to Ms. Jenner for her courage,” LGBT rights activists said its plea for Jenner to “support the transgender community by giving up the medals earned by competing against the wrong gender” seems designed as an attack on both Jenner and the transgender community.
One such activist is Michael Rogers, the executive director of Netroots Connect (a conference for LGBT media and activists). He told ThinkProgress that for several years he has observed that a large number of anti-LGBT petitions have been posted on Change.org and not removed, even after the company was alerted to them. And he believes the company’s business model relies on these petitions, but tries to hide it.
Rogers noted that violence against transgender people is an ongoing problem and expressed concern that anti-trans petitions could contribute to a hostile climate.
As a test, Rogers explained, he created a petition some time ago calling for one of the most extreme anti-trans policy ideas he could come up with. “I put up a petition demanding that trans people put up photos in their neighborhood if they planned on transitioning for a month before hand, with an artist rendering of what they planned to look like,” he recalled, and said he alerted company employees that it was online. “They wouldn’t take it down,” Rogers said, and, ultimately “I had to take it down myself.”
Brianna Cayo-Cotter, head of global communications for Change.org said in email, “We have no record of this alleged petition and want to highlight that users do not have the ability to delete petitions without assistance from our help desk. We have alerted ThinkProgress to the inaccuracies of this account, and are disappointed an unverified claim remains on record.”
Less preposterous (but still anti-LGBT) sentiments have also been evident in large petitions to support anti-LGBT activists like Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty and the Duggar Family of 19 Kids and Counting.
Rogers noted that when he created a similarly outrageous test petition — a demand for the Supreme Court to reverse Loving v. Virginia (the 1966 case that overturned state laws banning interracial marriage) — Change.org deleted it almost immediately. But a ThinkProgress review of currently active and closed but still visible petitions found one urging someone to “stop being a [racial slur]” and another demanding the deportation of “illegals” who it claims are spreading cholera and tuberculosis in the United States.
The apparent relative tolerance for hateful petitions, Rogers says, “shows how preposterous their moneymaking model is. Make no mistake — they depend on the Duck Dynasties and the [Jim] Bob and Michelle Duggars of this world to pay their staff.”
Once the company reviews flagged content, not all users are happy with what the company deems acceptable. After reviewing them for Terms of Service violations following ThinkProgress inquiries, Change.org allowed these other campaigns, that could be deemed hate speech, to remain active:
Demanding that President Obama, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon launch an investigation into “whether Islam is antithetical to Human Rights. The petition compares Islam to Nazism and warns: “The roots of the violence and persecution of other religions which we see both today, and in the history of the belief, are there plainly in the Koran and especially the Hadith or life of Muhammad.”
Opposing drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants. The petition’s 1,000-plus signers agreed that “What should be done is to make illegals follow the laws like everyone else and become a citizen. A license is a privelege [sic] and should be earned. We continue to give all kinds of benefits to people living here illegally and it needs to stop. Do not continue to reward illegal activity.” The petition is now closed but still online.
Promoting the ex-gay movement. More than 2,800 users demand that President Obama meet with “those of us who have left the homosexual lifestyle” as he has with “countless people who are participating in the homosexual lifestyle.”
Demanding legal action against a woman who reported being sexually assaulted. The author opined that Columbia University anti-rape activist Emma Sulkowicz had “no evidence” to back up her allegations and claimed that “new evidence has surfaced [that] she lied about the raped [sic].” The petition demands “she be pressed charges [sic] for her defamation.”
We have policies with ethical standards, including things like fact checking, around the campaigns we promote.
A former Change.org staffer told ThinkProgress that in the past, a petition like the anti-Jenner one would most likely have been removed by a team of staffers that reviewed each day’s new petitions for hate speech. The staffer, who asked not to be identified as his current employer did not authorize him to speak on the record, said it is “reasonable to assume” that the identities of the people who signed the Jenner petition and those like it will be used to help market the site to conservative businesses.
The former staffer also noted that while Change.org claims to be an open platform where grassroots activists create petitions, during his tenure there, “the biggest campaigns didn’t just happen — they were engineered internally, with Change.org finding a petition starter, creating a story for the media about how this perfect person just happened to show up to start a campaign about an issue they just happened to be the perfect person for.” As such, according to this former employee, the company played a large editorializing role beyond just allowing an open platform — and may well do the same on behalf of the conservative organizations the company is now actively recruiting.
Change.org’s director of policy, Sunita Bose, told ThinkProgress that she does not see a contradiction between being an open platform and having some staff involvement with some of the campaigns. In a follow-up email, she added: “Like all open platforms, we feature some content — that’s why you receive emails from YouTube with videos they think you may be interested in. We have a very small campaigns team that supports a small proportion of petitions with particularly compelling stories we think will resonate with our users, and other people. We have policies with ethical standards, including things like fact checking, around the campaigns we promote.”
Where Is The Line?
In addition to being a former Change.org contractor, Todd Heywood is a freelance writer and an expert in HIV criminalization and discrimination issues. Now, he said, the site has become a haven for offensive right-wing rhetoric, including petitions outing people who are allegedly living with HIV.
According to Heywood, this is particularly dangerous because “when you out someone as being HIV positive, you put them at risk for violence and potentially criminal action, depending on the state. Forced disclosure has led to several murders of women living with HIV.”
Naina Khanna is the executive director of Positive Women’s Network — USA. She said her organization sought help from Change.org when a June 2014 petition with the name “Aware the Public” accused a named individual of rape and of transmitting HIV to the petition creator’s sister. “We Reached out to Change.org, asking to them to exercise editorial control, to either edit or remove the petition,” she recalled, adding that her organization “explained why we felt this was really stigmatizing.”
They say they are not a place where bullying or harassment is allowed. This [kind of petition] is both.
The letter, sent to Change.org, noted that company’s definition of a petition was “a public message to one or more decision-makers, asking them to do something” and that the posted accusations “may not even qualify as a ‘petition.’” It also noted that the petition’s language calling the accused “already known for having AIDS” clearly “maligns a person based on a condition he may live with — a characteristic about himself that he cannot change,” in violation of the official hate speech guidelines.
Khanna shared the response Change.org’s Bose sent her, rejecting the request, with ThinkProgress. It stated:
If we received a claim from the man named in the petition, we would consider removing the petition but, in the absence of that, it’s the petition starter’s choice whether they want to edit or remove their petition. As an Internet platform, it’s not our place to judge people’s guilt or innocence nor to fact check every claim in the 30,000+ petitions that are started by people on Change.org every month.
We don’t evaluate hypothetical situations publicly, but I want to stress that if a petition was written with the sole intention of revealing someone’s HIV status or to malign all people with HIV, it would almost certainly violate our terms and be removed.
Khanna believes Change.org needs to do a better job of enforcing its terms of service. “It is the responsibility of a site like Change.org to be responsible in terms of exercising some sort of control,” she said. “They say they are not a place where bullying or harassment is allowed. This [kind of petition] is both.”
Asked about her company’s policing process, Change.org’s senior communications manager Shareeza Bhola said in an email that, “like YouTube and other open Internet platforms, we ask our users to flag any content that violates our Community Guidelines or Terms of Service. Our community can flag content by reporting it as inappropriate, writing to our help center, or by otherwise escalating it to our staff. Once we receive those flags, we have a team who monitor them, and if the content violates our policies, we will remove it.”
As for how many flags the company receives and how long it takes for offensive petitions to be removed, Bhola did not provide numbers but noted, “We have a Customer Advocacy team based in SF who work with contractors around the world to manage abuse complaints. The amount of time it takes to make these determinations varies greatly depending on the content — for example, we can relatively quickly judge if content is inciting violence.”
Change.org’s Schoop said the company sees “over 1,000 new petitions every day” and has “only a small team of people reviewing the flags.” She added that the site recently updated its community guidelines and its “definition of hate speech includes content that maligns a whole class of people based on their gender identity, and sexual orientation.” But, she noted, to empower “anyone, anywhere, to create the change they want to see,” the company takes “suppressing the voice of any one of our users extremely seriously, which is why any content removal needs to be in line with our Terms of Service and Community Guidelines.”
Bose acknowledged that the company has room for improvement as far as its policing speed. Noting the site’s rapid growth, she explained the site needs to grow its reviewing team: “This is an area [in which] we’re still catching up,” she said, noting that the company is currently in the hiring process for a “trust and safety lead.”
“These are tough challenges that all open Internet platforms face,” Bose observed. “To stay open, safe, and empowering,” she explained, the site has created an internal “decision flow, to determine whether content is bullying and hate speech.” Change.org doesn’t release that information publicly to ensure people don’t “game the system.”
Victories Every Day
Change.org points to a number of progressive victories as evidence of the site’s influence. In April, they note, Netflix pledged to make all of their major original programs accessible to the blind, after more than 3,000 users urged them to do so. An Indiana lawmaker stripped language from his own bill in February after more than 236,000 people signed a Change.org petition warning it would hinder anti-bullying efforts in schools. After nearly 70,000 people signed a petition urging a policy change, the international basketball governing body agreed to allow players to wear religious head coverings.
It can be hard to gauge how much of an impact the petitions had in making the highlighted victories happen — and what constitutes a win.
A 2014 petition launched by former NFL punter Chris Kluwe garnered more than 80,000 signatures demanding the Minnesota Vikings release the results of an investigation they conducted into allegations of discrimination against their former player. After Kluwe agreed to a settlement with the team that did not include a full release of the report, he and the company deemed it a victory. Kluwe noted on the site that “the Vikings were very much aware of this petition and concerned about the resulting negative attention. We decided that it was not in our best interest — or the public’s interest — to force the team to release the entire investigation report publicly due to privacy concerns.”
A 2012 petition highlighted by Change.org suggests that it helped Trayvon Martin’s parents win “justice” for their son. Though charges were filed against Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, he was acquitted in 2013.
In an email to ThinkProgress highlighting the site’s victories for LGBT causes, Change.org’s Schoop noted, “Just today, a petition got [former Arkansas Republican Governor] Mike Huckabee kicked out of a conference hosted by the Jewish National Fund in Canada for his views on LGBTQ issues.” But the petition she linked to had garnered just 31 supporters and the news article mentioned in her email quoted the Jewish National Fund’s CEO saying that the petition “had absolutely no impact whatsoever” on the group’s decision to cancel Huckabee’s keynote speech.
The impact of some of the petitions, however, is undeniable. After Scouts for Equality and former Cub Scout leader Jennifer Tyrrell collected millions of signatures urging the Boy Scouts of America to eliminate its anti-LGBT policy, a largely-dormant movement was reignited. The organization lifted its ban on gay youth in 2013 and last month its president called for an end to the national ban on LGBT adults.
Zach Wahls, executive director of Scouts for Equality told ThinkProgress that Change.org played a “critical role” in the effort. “The amount of signatures you can amass in one place really helps put a number on what the interest looks like — especially when you have such a compelling story as we do with the Scouts.” Wahls said the resulting media attention had a real impact on the national Boy Scout leadership: “I think what the Change.org platform did for us was to help put media attention on the issue. And that media attention is what caught the attention of BSA.”
Schoop said the site sees “almost one victory every hour on a wide range of topics.” She added, “Our homepage reflects some of the largest and most timely victories, and we gather all our victories here: www.change.org/victories.”
As for the question of why the list seemingly omits conservative victories, like the petition to keep Phil Robertson and Duck Dynasty on the air, Schoop had no response.
‘A Tacit Endorsement?’
While many of the hateful petitions posted on Change.org receive only a handful of signatures, their presence can have a harmful effect, activists say. A since-removed petition seen by ThinkProgress calling for President Obama to “remove overly homosexual fagboy [name omitted] from existence” attracted just 14 signatures. But, critics note, this sort of petition need only be seen by that individual (whose apparent photo appeared in the petition) or one of his friends or family to cause serious damage to the person’s safety and well-being.
When you perceive someone as less-than a full member of society, you’re more likely to start denying basic rights.
“Any time you have rhetoric in the body politic that is toxic, it sends a message to the targeted group — whether it’s LGBT, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, or even Christians — that [they] are less-than in American society. That helps create all sorts of insecurities for the individuals as well as social safety issues. When you perceive someone as less-than a full member of society, you’re more likely to start denying basic rights,” the former Change.org contractor Heywood warned.
Change.org founder Ben Rattray has said repeatedly that he created the site precisely because he wanted to support minority communities. Rattray told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2012 that his younger brother came out to him as gay before the rest of his conservative family knew, and that he regretted not supporting him sufficiently. As his brother’s school attendance declined, he began experimenting with drugs, and he threatened to run away, Rattray stayed silent.
“The lack of active rejection of the venom of homophobia is still a tacit endorsement,” Rattray said. “It’s exacerbated by people like me.”
This post has been updated to include a statement from Change.org’s Brianna Cayo-Cotter.