Last fall, New Jerseyans Abigail and Elizabeth Fournier logged onto the website Change.org and asked others worldwide to join them in pushing their governor to sign a bill then moving through that state’s legislature that would ban farms from raising hogs in gestation crates. “Please sign our petition to encourage Governor Christie to support S.998 and stand up against animal abuse,” they wrote. The issue pitted animal-rights activists against large agricultural interests. But the 131,680 signatures that appeared on the Fourniers’ petition over the next month didn’t budge Christie from his previous position. In late November, he vetoed the bill. “Sadly,” the Fourniers wrote in an update, “it seems like he is more concerned about his future political career than his obligation to New Jersey voters.”
But actually, there was no way for Christie or his staff could tell how many New Jersey voters had signed the Fourniers’ petition. The site could not even say for certain if any of those 131,680 names belonged to people registered to vote anywhere in the United States. While the Fourniers griped that their governor had chosen to side with Iowa business interests over a home-state constituency, Change.org was unequipped to present the types of data that might present countervailing political leverage against Christie. For example: How many of the 131,680 signatures came from registered independent voters with a history of casting a ballot in New Hampshire’s Republican primary?
Since reinventing itself in 2010 as a platform for petition-gatherers, Change.org has become a hub for online activism, making its most impressive mark in 2012 when a petition calling for prosecutors to charge Trayvon Martin’s killer received two million signatures in a month. But the site, which expects this week to enroll its 100 millionth member worldwide, has arguably had more of a political impact as a mechanism pressing corporations than elected officials.
Beneath its happy talk of “empowering people everywhere to create the change they want to see,” Change.org serves as a clearinghouse for politically-minded marketers looking to harvest names of activists. With an eye toward the 2016 election, the company is now trying to make itself relevant to the campaign cycle, in part by making the data it presents to politicians relevant to the election-year pressures they face.
For years, the factor that has distinguished whether a Change.org petition gets noticed by its targets (like the one that succeeded in convincing Bank of America to drop a $5 monthly banking fee) or ignored (like one to “take away the city of Los Angeles from the Clippers team name”) has been the total number of signatures acquired and the velocity at which it received them. (At one point, the site claimed, the Trayvon Martin petition was being signed one thousand times per minute.) Numbers will still be significant, but the site is now beginning to collect more detailed information on the people that sign its petitions, in order to give it a political clout it’s only occasionally had in the past.
Founded in 2007 as a self-described “social network for good,” it was converted shortly thereafter to a blogging platform for activists. Then company officials noticed that a petition attached to an op-ed about the practice of so-called “corrective rape” in South Africa caught on in a way that the article alone wouldn’t have. Change.org reinvented itself once again, into a launching pad for petition campaigns, most with a lefty flavor around human rights and consumer issues. But even though it hired an external-affairs team to promote “trending petitions” in the media and push the people they call “decision-makers” to respond, Change.org was never really built to influence politicians the way that a well-designed grassroots activist or interest-group lobbying campaign would. Change.org requires those signing on only to enter a name, e-mail address and ZIP code to establish an account. The information can tamp down the most obvious types of potential fraud, but it's far from sufficient to exert meaningful control over elected officials, who want to know how their stances on issues influence actual votes.
Once registered, members can direct petitions at anyone they choose, but the lack of meaningful political information means they are often targeted in a way that diffuses responsibility too widely to have much of an impact or demand accountability. According to one company official, Barack Obama remains a frequent target of petitions, even on local issues where the White House is unlikely to ever engage. (The White House has launched its own online-petition platform, We the People, along with a pledge that it will respond to any that receives 100,000 signatures in 30 days. It does not require people to register with a ZIP code.) Lots of petitions are addressed to Congress, but rarely to individual members whose constituents can be effectively rallied behind the cause. The way American political geographies are drawn, a ZIP code isn’t enough to confidently identify a voter’s representative. And it is effectively useless for city-council or school-board districts, places where a few hundred well-selected signatures could amount to a serious cudgel.
Even as the company’s revenue depends on advocacy organizations buying access to its large pool of politically active users, Change.org ultimately knows very little about who those members are. The company sells outside issue groups—from Amnesty International and the World Wildlife Fund to state ballot-initiative campaigns—the means to promote their petitions on the site, and then harvest e-mail addresses from the people who sign them so they can be later recruited as members or donors. At the moment, both Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’ campaigns sponsor list-building pledges there. (Despite its non-profit-sounding name, Change.org is registered as a B-corporation, a business that exists for a social impact. The company is committed to reinvesting all profits in its existing mission, and officials vow they will never have a public offering.) The site markets the ability to filter advertising to its users “by geography, age, or gender,” which might be helpful to Unicef, but not necessarily to Ready for Warren or Americans for Prosperity when trying to recruit likely Iowa caucus-goers to their cause.
According to one manager at the company, Change.org has begun the process of gathering information about its members that will allow them to be profiled in ways relevant to electoral politics. The primary mechanism for doing so will be a match of member profiles to voter-registration records, which includes information on past political behavior and can be linked to other repositories of individual data. (Users can control how much of their personal information Change.org shares with third-party groups that advertise on the site.) As the new data architecture is developed, the company plans to run tests in state and local elections scheduled this year in order to measure its impact and effectiveness in time to refine its position as a broker of influence in 2016.
It’s easy to imagine how petition drives could look very different with that information. Nick Grillo, a wheelchair-bound 54-year-old San Franciscan suffering from ALS, is petitioning a range of officials in Washington to expedite FDA approval of a promising drug. Over 750,000 people have now signed his letter on Change.org, including every senator on a health subcommittee dealing with children and families. The subcommittee’s chairman is Rand Paul, who knows how to elevate a cause into a crusade. Is he more likely to act right now upon the demands of three quarters of a million names from around the world, or a handful from well-selected states and demographic groups?
Even though Change.org officials reflexively use the term “decision makers” interchangeably when referring to politicians and corporate executives, their new direction is acknowledgment of the extent to which those figures respond to very different incentives. Corporations, especially those with consumer-facing brands, may believe they can’t risk having an image that anyone finds unpalatable. Politicians, at bottom, are focused on only a select few—potential voters—and often know with a high degree of precision who they might be. Change.org’s theory is that if politicians can see that those people sign petitions, they may start to pay attention.