The petitioning group Avaaz is polling its 17 million members to redefine its priorities as part of a huge exercise in global democracy. But does its brand of online activism actually work?
How do you run an organisation with 17 million bosses? Avaaz, the online campaigning giant that has taken action on Palestinian statehood, phone hacking and News International, and the pre-trial detention of Bradley Manning, among much else, is making its annual attempt to find an answer to that question this week.
Avaaz’s 2012 campaigns included a petition with nearly 1m signatures calling for universal education in Pakistan after the shooting of 15-year-old schoolgirl activist Malala Yousafzai. It was delivered by a UN envoy directly to the Pakistani president – who signed it himself. Avaaz also amassed 1.8m signatures for Palestinian statehood, and was part of the internet-wide efforts against new censorship laws in January.
But now, in a bid to decide what to do next, the five-year-old activism organisation is holding what one staffer describes as a “global party conference” to let its members try to set the agenda for the year ahead.
Where ordinarily such an endeavour would involve rounding up a group of people to a desultory out-of-town hotel, this one’s virtual: some just chip in through ticking boxes on polls, others engage in lengthy debates on online threads, and some suggest face-to-face action with local groups. Avaaz’s 80 staff, dotted around the world, have their own ideas and plans, but in a similar manner to the Occupy or Arab spring movements, claim it is being run from the bottom up.
Suggestions are flooding in. Among hundreds of pages of comments, and tens of thousands of polling responses, numerous priorities are listed: “How can we stop the radical Islamist groups in Syria and stop the Assad’s regime at the same time,” asks Omar, from Syria. Shanti, from Nepal asks: “Please campaign against the killing of innocent Shias of Pakistan. More than 100 people died in the blast in Quetta two days back.” Peter in Australia notes: “The right to secular education for all children is essential for the future of humanity.”
Where the Occupy movement has foundered since the dissolution of its camps around the world, and the Arab spring nations have seen mixed fortunes, from the re-emergence of hated laws and elites in Egypt to outright civil war in Syria, the online activism movement is apparently flourishing: Avaaz had six million members two years ago, 10 million in January 2012, and more than 17 million today. Similar groups such as 38 Degrees and Change.org have similarly grown in scale and high-profile actions. But with scale comes challenges: what have the groups actually achieved? Who’s really in charge – the paid staff or the diffuse member base? And now governments are starting to take digital democracy seriously – with official petition sites, open policymaking and more – what’s the point in the long term?
Avaaz began its annual consultation with half a million emails sent last Thursday, imploring its members – those who have signed previous petitions, or participated in other actions – to answer an extensive poll on what should be done in 2013. The resulting ballot is perhaps one of the biggest exercises in direct democracy ever undertaken: across millions of members, 14 languages, over a hundred countries.
Questions range from what the general priorities should be (at the time of writing, “human rights, torture, genocide, human trafficking” is top, while “food and health” is lowest priority), to specific campaign suggestions, to how seriously Avaaz staffers should take the poll: at present, 86% of members seem happy for the staff to use it just as a guide, while only 6% think it should form a binding mandate.
One of the first people looking at the results as they start to filter in – and someone who helped set up the exercise – is Alice Jay, a campaigns director for Avaaz. She joined the organisation from a career working for the UN and international charities more than four years ago, when the membership count stood at just over one million.
She says the exercise is crucial, and serious. “We’re like a sailing boat, not a motor boat,” she says. “Whether it’s our strategy or our campaigns, it’s only as strong as the public wind of ideas that are behind them. So whether we might believe ourselves that A, B or C are great campaigns, we test and poll them, and if the membership isn’t in to them, we don’t run them. We do really see this as informing the decisions that we will take.”
Of course, that is easy to say – but a cynic might note there is a lot that can be done to nudge this kind of exercise in a particular direction: for one, people disillusioned with Avaaz are the least likely to spend time filling out a poll on what it should do, while there is a lot that phrasing of poll questions could do to favour an answer that is perhaps preferred by staff.
Jay has a straightforward counter to such a charge: if Avaaz wasn’t doing what its members wanted, it wouldn’t survive. But, she notes, members do value a bit of “leadership” from staff. “We’re an organisation that’s 100% member-funded, through £5 here or £20 there. As such, that our bosses are our members isn’t just talk, it’s a very real thing,” she says.
“What we’ve found repeatedly is the membership of Avaaz deeply value leadership: they want smart suggestions and ideas for causes they support. User-generated activism often fails, and what we’ve seen is that a healthy movement values leadership and there is an appreciative relationship between staff as stewards, and members as bosses.”
Cash and leadership, in the activism world, can be tricky subjects. Naomi Colvin, an activist who was heavily involved in the Occupy movement and Bradley Manning support network, says she admires what sites such as Avaaz can do, but says they’re not nearly as democratic as they might like to think.
“I think Avaaz are probably more internally directed than most similar sites,” she says. “I’ve never really had the impression that Avaaz is that member-driven; the staff have a lot of say in what they’re going to do. Being slightly more transparent about how things are chosen is definitely a step in a good direction and can only help in forging a user base that feels involved, but it’s never going to be as direct as something like Occupy.”
The other snarl-up, Colvin notes, is a tricky one, and stems from a group of conflicted interests. Several governments have now set up direct petition sites with some promised response: if you muster 100,000 signatures in the UK, the backbench committee of parliament will discuss the topic with an eye to setting up a full debate. In the US, 25,000 signatures will merit a response from the White House – whatever the topic (see panel).
This was the goal of a group of NHS campaigners at the height of opposition to Andrew Lansley’s reform plans, as they worked to secure enough signatures to hit the 100,000 goal. But campaigners at 38 Degrees had different ideas. “38 Degrees, I think, had some insiderish knowledge, and had decided getting a debate at that point might not be the best action,” Colvin recollects. “And that ended up as a real shit storm. People were covering their Facebook wall asking why they weren’t supporting the existing petitions. It just doesn’t look very good.”
These inter-site conflicts are almost inevitable, Colvin muses, because of the grassroots funding: great as it sounds (and often is) to be funded by the people who join your campaigns, it creates a big incentive to get involved with any issue gathering some momentum. The risk is you end up with campaigning groups competing against one another, rather than getting on with changing things.
Regardless of such niggles, Colvin concedes, Avaaz and its like have their place, as she recalls firsthand. “An Avaaz petition at the right time does swing the balance on a lot of issues – this happened with the Manning at Quantico thing at a very critical moment. Although, typically, no one from Avaaz seemed to be in touch with anyone at the campaign, and there were issues with the write-up, a petition getting 500,000 signatures in 48 hours was very important. They have that kind of reach that no one else has.”
Such discussions ignore perhaps the most obvious question for such organisations: do petitions do any good? Are they nearly enough? Or is “clicktivism” – merely clicking a petition, then sitting back and feeling you have made a difference – replacing real interventions? It’s a question Avaaz’s Alice Jay has very little time for.
“I think the clicktivism debate is just silly. I don’t think anyone doubts that iTunes has changed music, or eBay has changed commerce. No one calls that clicktivism,” she says. “No one calls Gandhi a ‘walkavist’, or Rosa Parks a ‘sitavist’. The internet is really just the place where this change is happening. Think local, act local, think national, act national, think global, act global – I think that’s what Avaaz provides.”
Some with experience of the actual operations inside of government, though, have more reservations. Anthony Zacharzewski, a former Whitehall civil servant who is now chief executive of Demsoc, an organisation looking at new ways of running government, has a somewhat damning verdict on the effectiveness of petitions. “They are definitely the junk food of democracy – they make you feel good for the moment but they don’t necessarily move things forward,” he says. “Like with everything, the easier it is for people in a power position to discredit what you’re doing as just the usual suspects, or just people signing a petition, then it will be discredited.”
Zacharzewski supports the idea of more interventionist, participatory democracy, but advocates more subtle interventions, online and offline: gathering “juries” of citizens to discuss in detail specific issues, or opening up policy-making beyond traditional lobbies and civil servants. Some are already gaining traction within the Cabinet Office, with trials already under way.
It’s also fair to note that Avaaz and its ilk are becoming more sophisticated. Though it did gather more than a million signatures in its campaign for upgrading Palestine’s status at the UN, Avaaz had an extra trick: it ran a specific, rapid round of fundraising to fund national opinion polling in three countries on the (then) forthcoming UN vote – a measure designed to show those governments the strength of public support on the issue, but also to help offer some political cover for making such a vote.
Its next plan is to expand its “daily briefing” news site, to combine collected global reporting with calls to action – a shift the staff have been keen to implement for months and which is so far finding favour with members (65% counted it as one of their top three directions for 2013).
If this kind of nimble, sophisticated, issue-based campaigning continues its hold – and, given the current campaigns both for and against gay marriage, India’s war on women, drones and surveillance, there’s every reason to think it will – it could mark a fundamental change in politics. And in all probability, says Zacharzewski, the losers will be the political parties, as people focus directly on each individual issue they support rather than signing up to the bundle of compromises that makes up a traditional party manifesto.
“I think parties have a huge structural problem,” he says. “One of my trustees says the parties are dead and not coming back. I think that’s a bit strong, but I think the concept of the party as a vehicle for mass compromise is foundering on the fact that people aren’t willing to put up with mass compromise any more.
“The next five or 10 years will show whether government and online politics can reinvent itself in the way that speaks to a networked, personalised, individualised society – because if it can’t, we might be in 1765 with the French revolution ahead of us.”
Five examples of petition power
Convicted London rioters should loose [sic] all benefits
The most popular petition to date on the UK’s government official site called for anyone convicted of participating in the 2011 riots to lose benefits. A response from the government noted anyone imprisoned wouldn’t receive benefits, but nonetheless it sparked a backbench debate on the riots – though, to the fury of some, state benefit sanctions weren’t discussed.
‘Palestine: the world’s next nation’
Avaaz far surpassed its goal of more than a million signatures ahead of the UN’s meeting on whether to upgrade Palestine’s status last year. The petition was one of a variety of tactics deployed by Avaaz in this campaign. While it’s impossible to tell whether Avaaz had any direct effect, nations voted 138-9 in favour of the motion.
Stop the extradition of Richard O’Dwyer to the USA
This anti-extradition petition against the extradition of Sheffield student Richard O’Dwyer to the US on copyright charges was started by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales as part of a campaign in conjunction with the Guardian. O’Dwyer eventually managed to come to a settlement with prosecutors to avoid extradition and trial, and his family credited mass public support as a help along the way.
‘Stop Rupert Murdoch’
This petition came at the peak of the phone hacking scandal, just as it appeared Rupert Murdoch might still secure BSkyB. With 48 hours to go, it called on David Cameron and Nick Clegg to intervene and block the bid. At the 11th hour, Murdoch’s News Corporation withdrew its bid – though still remains a significant force in the world’s media.
‘Secure resources and funding, and begin construction of a Death Star by 2016’
The White House’s response to this ambitious US stimulus plan has gone viral in the past week – but signatories are likely to be disappointed. The White House notes that, regrettably “construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We’re working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.” But the peaceniks go even further: “The Administration does not support blowing up planets.” Cowards.