Every other day, a new mail drops into the inbox asking you to ‘change the world’ by signing a petition
. It can be as serious an issue as seeking justice for an acid attack victim or as trivial as asking Justin Bieber
to have a live concert in India
. For an increasing number of urban Indians
bred on concepts of equality and justice but frustrated by trappings of age-old power hierarchies of this country, the idea is promising. You don’t need to be a kurta-wearing social activist
sitting on dharnas or a donor writing cheques to fund campaigns. Just filling in your name, email Id and postal code would do.
Petitioning around social campaigns has been in practice for decades but never has its impact been more pronounced than today when a call to ‘stop rape’ can gather 59,000 signatures in just 24 hours (On last count, the petition had 6.64 lakh signatures). For every signature, the decision makers get an email (many petitions also request the supporters to call the officials) thus ensuring constant pressure on them to act.
Two government school teachers in Jharkhand get paid after four years, five asphalt factories in Rajasthan shut down for causing air pollution, a discriminatory temple ritual is banned in Karnataka…the list goes on about the impact online petitions
have made, though not singularly.
Online petitioning picked up pace in India
after 2011 when Change.org
, the world’s largest e-petition platform, started its operations here. Today, it has close to 6 lakh users with 600-800 petitions started every month, up from 11-15 petitions two years ago. Worldwide, it has operations in 18 countries and boasts of 35 million users.
Change.org also scores over other online platforms because of its support team, which helps build a communication strategy around selected petitions. In India, a small five-member team sends emails to users, talks to the media and suggests ways to engage with decision makers around campaigns which are bound to get popular support like the anti-rape petition started in wake of the Delhi gang-rape
. The team works on 14-16 campaigns a week.
One palpable difference online platforms have made in the field of campaigning is democratisation of the petitioning tool. Anybody can mobilise support for a cause they strongly feel about. Namita Bhandare, who started the anti-rape petition, had never participated in protest marches or candlelight vigils. She wrote the petition just to give vent to her anger and feeling of helplessness after the Delhi gang-rape. “At first, I questioned myself what would a petition do. In fact, now I realise that the recommendations we made in the petition were very basic and the Justice Verma Commission went much beyond as it factored in marital rape, action against armed forces and redefined sexual assault. However, filing that petition was cathartic for me. The tool lends power to the people who were earlier completely dependent on media or NGOs
to mobilise support,” she says.
However, critics believe that e-petition promotes slacktivism or armchair activism
which is also the reason it is so successful. It gives “false power” to those who feel helpless in face of problems they can’t control and prevents many of the supporters from participating in on-ground action. Preethi Herman, Campaigns Director at change.org laughs off such criticism. “We tend to assume that people just sign petitions. Online platform is the first point of engagement. They make telephone calls to decision makers, participate in offline events and help spread the word further. You can’t equate mobilisation with activism
as it’s more about developing a larger support base for your cause. Most of the supporters are not activists but they do want a change,” she says.
Bhandare agrees: “ E-petition does sensitise one to the cause. You can’t just start a petition on rape and go to a cocktail party. I am sure many of the signatories to my petition also joined the on-ground protests.”
Change.org also collaborates with Video Volunteers
and CGNet Swara, the two grassroots-level organisations which use video and audio media to highlight issues in rural India. “It was important for us to adapt to Indian conditions where Internet penetration is still very low. We work with Video Volunteers
and CGNet Swara to identify issues in their areas which could be promoted online and hence bridge the gap between rural and urban population,” Herman says.
Tania Devaiah, the impacts manager at Video Volunteers, confirms that getting numbers behind a cause through online petition
lends an institutional approach to the campaign. “Constant flow of emails and phone calls does build pressure on decision makers in comparison to a single approach of making and screening of videos. We pick up issues for online campaigns where either it’s difficult to make the authorities act or the cause has a universal appeal,” she adds. The next frontier change.org wants to conquer is to make the platform available in Hindi and adapt it to mobile phones.
Change.org believes that to get the desired impact, online petitions should be supported by on ground action, exposure in local media and interactions with decision makers. However, in many cases, the offline or on-ground mobilisation may be completely missing, thus putting a question mark on sustainability of the impact generated. For instance, a petition
by Video Volunteers against a discriminatory practice in a Rajasthan village where a traditional practice of Dalit
women carrying their footwear in their hands while crossing the houses of upper caste families garnered 5,480 signatures.
Acting on the petition, the District Collector
along with other officials held a meeting in the village apprising them of the law banning caste discrimination and ordered that the practice be disallowed. However, the villagers did not even know that there was a campaign running on this issue and unknown people were playing their saviours over the Internet. The impact has been that the Dalits are now much more scared to talk about the discrimination, as mentioned by this report in Times of India.
Herman refutes this claim, saying that the correspondent of Video Volunteers had mobilised Dalit women against this practice and villagers might be scared of talking to the media due to local power equations. However, independent inquiries made by The Hoot confirm that the action taken by the officials was solely on the basis of the online petition and there was no local campaign against the practice.
Verification of facts reported in the petition is another sore point. Though some petitions do carry images and videos related to the issue, there are chances that you might end up supporting a wrong cause. For instance, an incident in Hyderabad got two separate petitions running on the website. Girl college students coming out of a pub after a farewell party were accused
by the regional news channels of creating nuisance at a public place and depicted as uncultured while the students blamed
the media of moral policing and wrongful depiction. The chances are you may end up signing one of these petitions without getting to know the other side. Herman says since numerous petitions are created daily, it’s not possible to substantiate the facts presented in each of them but whenever the Change team works on and pushes a petition, the facts are verified in detail.
Change.org claims to be a corporation using the power of business for social good. It made revenue by allowing sponsored petitions from progressive groups willing to shell out dollars to promote their campaigns. The concept has helped the company generate enough profit to make its functioning self-sustaining.
However, something changed in October last year when a leaked internal documentrevealed
how the organisation was replacing its value-based advertising policy to an ‘open’ approach allowing even conservatives and corporates to use its resources. This invited widespread criticism from the progressive community which felt that the vast user database it helped build through the years was being sold to the opposition camp.
On the other hand, as underscored
by Isaac Luria of Groundswell, organisations running social campaigns don’t get a full contact list of their supporters whom they could later invite to attend meetings, join local groups, or donate. “Of course, I could have bought the names that signed the petition on Change.org for around $500,000 or about $2 per name if I had the foresight before the campaign was launched or had the money,” he adds.
Change’s founder Ben Rattray responded
to the criticism by arguing that the organisation “cannot maintain an open platform and simultaneously block all ads that don’t fit a particular political view” and ads from controversial groups would only be accepted if the platform has users interested in their work. He also emphasised that an open advertiser policy was essential to avoid being “regularly forced into unsustainable positions.”
However, not everybody was impressed with these clarifications. Kamayani Bali Mahabal, an online campaigner who has initiated a petition
asking Rattray to come out clean, says the definition of openness pushed by Change.org is not in consonance with progressive principles. “I used to laugh at some of the inane petitions like the ones promoting homophobia or anti-abortion, as I was sure change.org will not give any support and the petition will die its own death. But with the new policy, anyone is eligible to advertise. So, after I sign a petition for human rights, I might find a link to a sponsored petition on giving legal recognition to khap panchayats,” she says.
Mahabal has now been trying other online platforms but is not happy with their technical support. For the time being, she is using her own blog
to mobilise online support and is hopeful that Indian activists will have their own independent platform soon.
Meanwhile, as they say, every change is accompanied by discomforts. The question is how well can we deal with these.