By Reya Mehrotra
In the age of hashtag movements and digital activism, online petition platforms, as well as social media have become the ‘toolkits’ of dissent. One such platform is Change.org, which operates in Asia, Africa and Latin American countries to empower communities, and has achieved some notable milestones, including getting HUL brand Fair & Lovely to be more inclusive. At the 2021 Jaipur Literature Festival’s virtual edition, Nida Hasan, who heads the India team of Change.org as country director, spoke with Reya Mehrotra about online petition platforms giving a voice to the voiceless, serving as the newest pillars of democracy and her journey as a woman leader. Edited excerpts:
How has your journey been as a young leader of an important organisation? How did you start?
When I started working at the age of 22 as a journalist, I was idealistic and ambitious. However, after four years in the Indian newsroom, I realised that TV news was a rat race, where speed mattered more than research and opportunities tilted heavily in favour of men. And so, I went for the job of my dreams-as a reporter/producer for the south Asia bureau of France 2 TV. I was flying across 12 countries, covering news in south Asia and south-east Asia with seasoned journalists. However, hectic travel schedules and deadlines made me feel hollow, as most of my work did not create any lasting impact. And so, just before I turned 30, I decided to take a life-changing career decision. After over eight years as a broadcast journalist, I decided to give it all up and joined Change.org in 2014 as a campaigns and communications manager. I found my purpose in telling people’s stories and leveraging technology and media to create real impact. In the last six years, I have helped create impact on several campaigns, ranging from health to environment, from women’s rights to labour reforms, from LGBTQI+ issues to child rights. I also rose through the ranks to become the country director for Change.org India, managing a team of 17 and taking the platform from a million users in 2014 to over 38 million in 2020.
What is the essence of digital activism in times of physical restrictions (like during the lockdown)? Did you notice a rise in petitions on the platform during the lockdown?
In a country like India, with the disparities that we have, the impact of the pandemic was even greater. The crisis revealed a set of realities surrounding health systems, how companies treat their employees, among other social inequalities. And this reflected on our platform as well. Over 12,000 petitions were started in just the first month of the lockdown. This was twice our monthly average. Since physical meets were not possible, Change.org became people’s principal ally and the only safe way to bring about a change. We realised that Change.org was starting to look like a barometer of citizens’ voice during the pandemic. Therefore, we aggregated all petitions related to the virus under the title ‘India Fights Covid-19’. Users could discover stories of many Indians who, on top of the coronavirus, also fought against cases of justice, inequality and vulnerability.
Your platform has raised petitions on important issues like that of the farmers’ protest, use of the word ‘fair’ in Fair & Lovely cream, etc.
Do you think digital social action platforms have become the newest pillars of democracy?
Change.org has always provided space to people to raise their voice on issues that matter most to them. The change could be as small as getting a road fixed near your house or urging a multinational brand to change the name of their highest-selling product to become more inclusive. It gives every citizen the opportunity to hold people in positions of power accountable. And that’s what democracy is about. Not just being able to vote every five years, but having a voice and being heard during the years in between. Change.org India puts power back in the hands of regular citizens and is, therefore, one of the most influential social change platforms in the country.
What is the review mechanism for issues being raised on Change.org? Is each petition reviewed?
Every month, on an average, over 6,000 petitions are started on Change.org in India alone. We do have policies in place to address fake news, online misinformation, hate speech, bullying, etc. If we receive multiple credible reports that a petition contains verified misinformation or is in any way violating our community guidelines, we’ll take action under those policies. In some cases, we’ll remove the content altogether and in other more complicated cases, we’ll add warnings on the petition page to encourage users to research the issue before signing or sharing. Users of Change.org can flag any petition that they feel misrepresents facts or violates our community guidelines at which point the policy team immediately assesses the petition and takes appropriate action.
How does a digital social action platform like yours ensure legitimacy? Are the matters that receive huge numbers of signatures put forward to the government through you? What happens to such issues once these have received large-scale support?
Change.org makes it easy for anyone, anywhere to start a petition on an issue they care about. While starting a petition, you select a decision maker with the power to act on your issue and explain why the change you want to make is important. You also add this person’s email address. The person or group that you list as the decision maker for your petition will be notified about your petition by email, and then receive additional notifications about increases in signatures, and media coverage, making it difficult for them to ignore your petition. A victory is declared when the person who started a petition declares that their goal has been achieved. If the petition author feels that a decision maker has addressed their concern, they can mark it as a victory. Just because a campaign has a huge number of signatures, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will win and vice-versa. Many times, winning campaigns and personal stories that speak to people’s hearts can drive large-scale change. For example, a single mother’s campaign ensured that over 13 million single mothers in India finally had the option of procuring a passport for their children as sole guardians. Over 400 million people have taken action on Change.org across the globe-some big and some small.
Through your platform, those on the fringes of society have raised their voices, demanding justice and representation, the latest being Laxmi Agarwal asking for fair representation of acid attack survivors on platforms. How, according to you, is a platform like Change.org amplifying the voice of the voiceless?
Afreen, a Muslim woman from Gujarat, started a petition urging the imam at the mosque near her house to condemn domestic violence during the weekly Friday sermons. The imam not only agreed to her request, but also promptly posted a response on her petition and urged other religious leaders to do the same. Our platform also helped a visually impaired petition starter Aziz Minat to get food delivery app Zomato to become fully accessible to the visually impaired. There are many other ongoing campaigns which represent the growing number of campaigns that address the most pertinent needs of the underrepresented communities. This is the best time in history to campaign on issues you care about; the tools are everywhere, and free. You can build movements, that used to take months and years, in hours and days. In this way, the internet is a great equaliser, especially for those who are underrepresented in society.
Are digital petitions legal and acceptable in the court of law?
If not, do you think they must be recognised?
Online petitions are completely different from legal petitions. I believe that online petitions are an effective way to bring about change. Thousands of people who have started petitions on Change.org have been really successful in bringing about positive social impact. However, we must not confuse online petitions with legal petitions in courts because they both follow very different processes and are effective in their own different ways.