An Open Platform in a Polarized World
How we’re creating a platform for online activism that is both safe and open.
Written by Molly Dorozenski, Managing Campaigns Director at Change.org
Being open is at the core of who we are at Change.org, and on any given day, tens of thousands of new petitions are started on the platform. People come to Change.org to advocate for their needs, their wants, and their community. Their petitions can be progressive, conservative, silly, smart, funny, or sad. One day we might see a massive petition asking for the ending of Game of Thrones to be rewritten, and another day a mother fighting to clean up Santa Susana’s nuclear test site because her daughter has cancer.
Openness means that everyone has the ability to speak up about the issues they care about, regardless of their background, experience, or affiliations. It means that our platform is a public square for the many and diverse views we each hold in society. But sometimes, finding the balance between making space for different perspectives and safe for all users is a challenge.
We’ve spent over a decade trying to find that balance, iterating and learning as we go. Most recently, I facilitated a bottoms-up, staff-led process of deeply examining our policies, and who they may disproportionately impact.
To start, we looked at a variety of frameworks for how to think fairly about the limits of openness that created more or fewer guidelines for our petition starters. We explored:
- Basing our policy on UN-described human rights.
- Basing our policy on anti-racism and anti-oppression
- Basing our policy on harm reduction
- Being maximally open and being radically transparent with any rules that were necessary
We focused on basing our policy on harm reduction. We asked ourselves, Could a platform be open while focusing on the reduction of harm? In principle, it seems great, but harm itself can be political. For example, when we addressed the topic of schools reopening during the global COVID-19 pandemic, we see the potential for harm on both sides of the argument. On one side, reopening schools could unnecessarily expose children to COVID-19, and on the other side of the argument, for many children, school is a safe and secure space away from dangers and hunger at home. Around the world, one side was labeled “conservative” and the other “progressive” and yet there were conservative and progressive arguments on both sides. In this case, we chose to allow both types of petitions on the platform to find support for their point of view.
With all frameworks, we repeatedly ran into situations where people’s rights conflicted. Sometimes it was very clear that some rights should be held as more important than other rights. Physical safety is more important than comfort, for example.
We were surprised though, that most situations were much more nuanced. Through an anti-racist lens, affordable healthcare helps narrow the gap in insurance coverage for People of Color. So does that mean we wouldn’t allow a petition that said the Affordable Care Act in the US made insurance coverage unaffordable for some families? Determination of harm quickly becomes political, and it’s easy to see that a public debate about the merits of plans would be good for the country.
Ultimately we found that a decision-making matrix could help us determine if the harm created by a petition was greater than the positives for freedom of expression and public interest. We’re still refining it, but we hope it will let us maximize the benefits of openness and minimize the harm that can come from petitions on the site.
Increasingly, another concern with being an open platform is polarization. Are people actually having the public debate we are giving them space to have? If our algorithm serves people petitions similar to ones they’ve already signed, are we recreating their echo chamber for them? On the other hand, if we give people petitions that they strongly disagree with, will they simply become more entrenched in their existing opinions? Will they learn about other arguments, or will we unintentionally trigger them?
In a context where the left and right increasingly experience different realities and understandings of truth, what can we do to foster healthy and safe public debate?
Judging the worth of an argument by its loudest supporters can push people to extremes. We have a lot of work to do to figure out how to help expose people to new ideas without setting everything up as a binary choice when it’s possible (in many cases) that the issue is more nuanced.
Change.org is a global company, and the decisions we make on policy and openness have far-reaching impacts. Operating globally means that we need to be aware of cultural differences between countries and listen carefully to the debate and consider how we can contribute positively. Those political contexts help determine the level of safety in speaking truth to power.
Our approach thus far, unintentionally, has been to optimize the platform for countries that have the most rights (or the most freedom). But doing the opposite — optimizing for the countries that have the least rights (or the least freedom) — is how we can help the most oppressed and create a safe space for them to make change.
One of our early questions as a group of staff grappling with these questions was how we could be as open and as safe as possible. This turns into a bit of a knot if you follow the logic too far. If you are maximally open (in the sense that you don’t restrict any content), you can create a problem where the site is most welcoming to dominant groups, and it alienates people from non-dominant groups who are made to feel unsafe on a platform without ‘rules’.
But if you are maximally safe (in the sense that you are restrictive on all content that might make people feel unsafe) you are not open because people are restricted in what petitions they can start and don’t feel empowered to even try. So: being too open is not open at all, and being too safe is not open at all either.
The only real solution to this problem is finding a balance, which we are continually adjusting. Platforms like ours benefit from reasonable guidelines that people can follow, and efforts to engage experts, both in different locations and with different identities.
We need to be open in our policy development and listen to differing points of view, and we need to be respectful of all identities and cultures — especially considering the impact of oppressed peoples in such discussions. And we need to constantly grow and change as the world around us grows and changes.