WASHINGTON -- Change.org has been promoting a petition that defends one of the lead figures in the reality TV show "Duck Dynasty." The social change company elevated the petition to its front page and pushed the petition on its Twitter feed.
The petition argues that family patriarch Phil Robertson, who is under fire for homophobic and racially insensitive remarks, is being deprived by critics of his First and Second Amendment rights. (The reference to Second Amendment rights actually makes no sense, since Robertson's critics are not trying to block him from bearing arms or joining a well-regulated militia, and the petition makes no attempt to explain that claim.) Earlier this month, A&E, which airs "Duck Dynasty," suspended Robertson from the show.
Change.org launched with a focus on social change in a progressive direction. But in the fall of 2012, The Huffington Post reported, based on internal company documents, that Change.org was dropping its liberal litmus test and would allow GOP, pro-life and other conservative groups to buy access to the company's users.
The company furiously objected to the article, and founder Ben Rattray wrote a HuffPost column denouncing the story as misleading:
"[P]eople concerned about this matter have a clear choice between two possible versions of reality:
"The first version is that despite a long history of commitment to social change, Change.org has sold out, aspires to work with only the most polarizing organizations, does so in a secretive manner, and has managed along the way to convince more than 100 of the most accomplished social change movement builders in the world to fight against the things they've dedicated their lives to.
"The second is this: that Change.org is forging new ground that presents both incredible opportunities and difficult choices, that strategy is different than motive, that some articles are hogwash, and that an organization with more than 100 staff who have dedicated their lives to social change might have a more informed understanding of building social power than can be fit into a headline on the Huffington Post.
"If it's still not clear to you which version is accurate, I'd ask you to consider suspending final judgment until you see the impact of our actions once the heat of the rhetoric subsides. Because while the impact that Change.org users have had around the world has been growing rapidly, we're just getting started. And we'd love to work together to change the world."
Since that story appeared, Change.org has partnered with the National Republican Senatorial Committee on a number of campaigns, including one to "dismantle Obamacare." It has also worked with a Fix the Debt offshoot known as The Can Kicks Back, a corporate-funded group that aims to cut Social Security and Medicare as part of a so-called grand bargain on the federal budget.
While Change.org has worked to shed its progressive label, people outside the company still view it that way and see its work on behalf of the "Duck Dynasty" star as evidence that liberals support him. "Users of Change.org -- a site famous for progressive-leaning online petitions -- has gone all out for Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson. By 2 p.m. today, there were more than 120,000 total signatories on a host of petitions calling for A&E to lift its suspension of the redneck icon. That’s a lot of people, but it’s especially a lot of people for a site with verticals dedicated to Economic Justice, Sustainable Food, and Gay Rights," National Review wrote last week.
David Karpf, an assistant professor at George Washington University and author of The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy, wrote that Change.org's decision to promote the petition altered the way he thinks about the company.
"My thinking yesterday was that (1) Change.org is an open platform that can be used by pretty much anyone, (2) it adds value to petitions by promoting them to the front page and putting organizers in touch with petition-creators, (3) those limited organizing resources tend to be focused more on cultural issues than political issues, and (4) the company has to hold true to its identity, so jumping on this particular bandwagon doesn’t make much sense," Karpf wrote on his blog. "I guess I was wrong about (4). I have no idea what this company stands for."
Asked by HuffPost to elaborate in an email, Karpf said that Change.org has been leaning heavily toward culturally relevant issues that don't strike directly at politics, which may have made the "Duck Dynasty" petitions enticing. "If Change.org currently has a bias, it's a bias in favor of cultural campaigns. My guess is that's what initially drove the Duck Dynasty promotion," he said. "Change likes to promote petitions that are timely and media-friendly, and this certainly fits the bill. Then they got the progressive pushback, offered up the 'we're just a platform' defense, and quietly stopped promoting it so hard."
There is, in fact, a progressive -- or at least reasonable -- case to be made against suspending Robertson: namely, that he is the subject of an ongoing reality documentary, and therefore viewers should be treated to the full reality of his worldview. It's an argument made by MSNBC host Chris Hayes. Airing Robertson's views is therefore no more endorsing them than making a documentary about white supremacy would be endorsing a neo-Nazi worldview.
Hayes also noted that expressions of shock at the comments of an evangelical, self-described redneck were a bit overdone. "It is perhaps not the most shocking thing in the world to have learned the family's fearless leader had some really nasty things to say about gay people," Hayes said.
But though the petition promoted by Change.org discusses freedom of speech, it is framed in culturally conservative terms. "Duck Dynasty has a huge following and WE THE PEOPLE stand behind Phil Robertson and his family. We stand for faith and freedom. We stand for family and values," it reads.
For its part, Change.org may be open to all manner of petitions, but its staff still portrays it as a company working to "change the world." In response to a question about the "Duck Dynasty" campaign, HuffPost received the following autoreply from a Change.org spokesperson: "I've taken a break from helping change the world to go enjoy the world. And I'm having a great time! I'll be back Monday, January 6, and reply as soon as possible upon my return."
A second Change.org spokesperson, Brianna Cayo-Cotter, who is not taking a break from changing the world, said that the petition did not have a paid sponsor, but was submitted organically by a Change.org user. "In total, there were over 170 organic petitions started on the topic with a total of 250,000 signatures. The vast majority of these petitions urged A&E to rehire Phil Robertson," she said.
Cayo-Cotter said Change.org highlights "the most popular petitions in a 24 hour period" on its homepage and via social media, "space permitting."