The petition is one of the oldest tools in American politics. The Declaration of Independence invoked the colonists’ petitions to King George III, and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution enshrined the right to petition government for a redress of grievances. From the Boston Tea Party to the modern marches for civil rights and against abortion, action by citizens to petition their rulers has been a part of American democracy.
Then came the Internet. Given the ease of spreading information, online petitions took off. In 1998, amid the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton, Web designers Wes Boyd and Joan Blades (think: the “flying toaster” screen saver) sent a simple “censure and move on” petition to 100 friends. The result was MoveOn.org, one of the largest e-organizations in the United States, with more than 7 million members today.
But until recently, online petitions were widely considered a bit of a sham. In 2010, Clay Shirky, an expert in new media at New York University, accused political organizations of alarming people into signing petitions that Congress would never read as a means of expanding their lists of e-mail recipients and possible donors. And while numerous websites offer free tools to start an online petition, the costs for mass e-mailing can be daunting.
This has all changed in the past few months. Online petitions on political issues have exploded in popularity. Some have triggered media coverage and forced authorities to act—notably, the plea by black teenager Trayvon Martin’s parents that his killer face arrest and prosecution, or food blogger Bettina Siegel’s recent campaign to persuade the federal Agriculture Department to ban “pink slime” from ground beef served in schools.
Much of this surge can be traced to a single company. Change.org is a classic example of the overnight sensation that took five years to succeed. Founded in 2007 by Ben Rattray and two other young Stanford alumni, the site originally tried to spark activism by making it easy for anyone to launch a cause or to generate support for a charity. No dice; donors could contribute to a charity directly. Then Rattray hired dozens of bloggers, each devoted to a particular issue—gay rights, global warming—and started to draw attention on the Internet by enhancing their success in search-engine results.
Early last year, he discovered the formula that turned his company into an online powerhouse. A South African human-rights activist, Ndumie Funda, used a petition-drafting tool tucked away in a corner of Change.org’s website, hoping to press her government to declare the “corrective rape” of lesbians a hate crime after her same-sex fiancée was gang-raped and died. Change.org’s editors and bloggers drew attention to the cause, but it was the direct and personal nature of Funda’s appeal that provided authenticity and power. The more than 170,000 signers worldwide prompted media coverage that moved the South African government to create a task force—including Funda—to examine the issue.
“The way that that exploded internationally was a huge wake-up call for us,” said Ben Wikler, the website’s executive vice president. The site was reprogrammed so that anyone can start and circulate a petition for free, taking advantage of Facebook, Twitter, and other social-media outlets. When a petition gains traction, Change.org staffers help to fine-tune the language and draw media attention—and the company bears all the costs of sending e-mails to potential signers. Change.org now generates 15,000 new online petitions a month—three times as many as last fall—and reached 12 million users in April, 2 million more than in March. (The company counts a user as anyone who signs a petition, creates an account, and doesn’t unsubscribe from e-mails.) Traffic to the website soared from 4 million unique visitors last December to 11 million this March amid the furor over the Trayvon Martin case, and it settled back to 8 million in April, according to Google Analytics internal data. Wikler predicted that “based on the underlying growth rate,” Change.org will surpass March levels within a few months.
“The core idea of Change.org is to do for online campaigning what YouTube did for video,” Wikler said. “With YouTube, anyone could post a video, and it could actually go viral. It takes 30 seconds to start a petition on [Change.org, and] you don’t have to pay for servers if it gets to millions of people.… The barrier to entry is zero. And if you strike a nerve, you have an institutional rocket pack.”
Around the time that Change.org made this pivot, MoveOn launched a similar tool called SignOn.org, which lets members start their own petitions and offers institutional support for causes that earn the membership’s attention. In just over a year, SignOn.org Director Steven Biel said, the website has created more than 18,000 petitions, and more than 600 gained enough traction to use MoveOn’s master e-mail list. Those campaigns have brought surprising victories, such as Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s recent decision to veto a bill banning sex education in schools. Since Trayvon Martin was killed, Biel added, “we’ve seen a wave of African-Americans using SignOn.org to demand justice for family members killed under racially suspicious circumstances.”
By offering popular services for free, such as Craigslist and YouTube, Change.org and SignOn.org have discovered how to harness the power of abundance in online politics. In broadcast media, because airtime or print space is scarce and expensive, political messages must be crafted and delivered in sound bites. But on the Internet, the costs of communication are low. Thus, instead of relying on political professionals trying to predict which issues may pack a punch, these websites open the gates to everyone. Only 2 or 3 percent of the petitions catch on, but a process of natural selection allows the stronger ones to spread.
Internet-driven organizations are better suited to these campaigns because they can test the preferences of their members and then focus on “whatever issue is getting the attention of the public right now,” said David Karpf, who teaches media studies at Rutgers University and just authored The MoveOn Effect. Older advocacy groups that attract members via direct mail and rely on professional staff to chart their course are at a disadvantage. While they lumber along, planning strategy and budgets according to quarterly and yearly targets, Internet-powered activists can respond quickly to whichever headlines are drawing public attention—and divert support from the older groups.
Is there a downside to the democratization of political organizing? Change.org’s Wikler professes no fear of “petition fatigue”—at least, he says, “not the way I worry about voter fatigue.… There’s still a lot of injustice out there that people haven’t gotten together to address.” On the national stage, this has fostered a sort of petition inflation: Congress won’t blink at 100,000 signatures on a petition, but it will notice 1 million. Most of these petitions, however, have state, local, and corporate targets that tend to react with more sensitivity to broadsides from an aroused citizenry.
Still, the issues that fare best using this emerging tool for bringing democracy to bear are those that tug on the emotions and produce relatively simple victories. Persuading the Agriculture Department to back down on “pink slime” is surely easier than, say, ending long-standing subsidies for energy-intensive farming. Success also depends on the power of the interests under attack.
By encouraging activism around many issues, Wikler argues, Change.org may help advocates pursue longer-term battles by tapping a broader constituency. But Karpf is less sanguine. “What is in danger of being lost is institutional memory,” which comes from tracking issues over long periods, he pointed out. Besides, he added, “really hard policy changes take a lot of time and require building up a lot of power. And that requires a lot of resources.”
Right now, those resources are shifting from an older generation of advocacy organizations and into the coffers of fledgling, Web-savvy players striving to become the new power brokers in a digital age.
The author is cofounder of Personal Democracy Media and is editorial director of its news site, techpresident.com, which covers the effects of technology on politics, government, and civic life.
This article appears in the June 9, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.