What happens when people come to MoveOn to use our open petition platform to advocate conservative views?

Over the past year, MoveOn has increasingly focused on building progressive power by investing in and developing our open campaigning platform, MoveOn Petitions, which anyone can use to start and run an online petition campaign.

Literally thousands of MoveOn members are now starting progressive petitions each month. More than 4,000 petitions were created in November alone. Not every petition becomes an active campaign, but thousands of them have — fueling a real wave of progressive change in America. You can see some of the victories MoveOn members have achieved with the help of our platform in this video.

In the wake of the recent, successful campaign for marriage equality in Hawaii, in which MoveOn members and local MoveOn Councils played a big role (hooray – and congratulations!), some members have contacted MoveOn staff to ask questions and express concern about the fact that we don’t remove conservative petitions from the site. Marriage equality advocates in Hawaii used MoveOn Petitions to demonstrate widespread support, but opponents aiming to thwart the march to equality in Hawaii also created several petitions on our platform, including one that got a fair number of signatures. MoveOn staff and members with concerns have subsequently had several good conversations, and some MoveOn members concerned about the open nature of the platform have even used MoveOn Petitions to make their voices heard.

The purpose of this post is to address some of those questions, as well as to update members on some decisions about how the platform will function moving forward. We’ve made these decisions after listening closely to our members’ thoughtful and constructive feedback. These decisions will make our platform even less hospitable to petitions that advocate right-wing causes.

First though, I want to explain why a platform that was explicitly designed for and continues to exist for the purpose of bringing about more progressive change is open to petitions of any political or ideological persuasion, and why we don’t take down right-wing petitions. (See this October 2012 Huffington Post piece for more about our platform’s fundamentally progressive orientation.) There are several reasons – none of which have changed in the time since we launched our platform. Here are some of the most significant:

  • One is that while some petitions are clearly progressive, and some are clearly not, there are many issues on which progressives disagree, or where different progressive values come into conflict – and once we start trying to draw lines between what’s progressive and not, and making decisions about what to remove from the site, MoveOn staff and volunteers would inevitably be drawn into trying to adjudicate less clear-cut cases — such as whether it’s progressive to call for the Sedition Act to be used to arrest John Boehner, or whether MoveOn members should have boycotted Florida, with potentially harmful impacts on Florida workers, until the state repealed its “stand your ground” law.  In some cases, “what’s progressive” is an impossible line to draw, and we’d rather allow progressives with different viewpoints about an issue to use our platform as a sort of virtual town hall where they can make their case. After all, dialogue and free speech are progressive values too.
  • Also important, any time that MoveOn staff and volunteers dedicate to adjudicating such questions is time we’re not spending giving support to the awesome, clearly progressive campaigns that emerge from it. MoveOn has a tiny staff, funded entirely by our members. We also have an amazing corps of dedicated volunteers. Our staff and volunteers can make the biggest impact if they are focused on winning big campaigns that make a difference in people’s lives. Having to make decisions about what petitions aren’t progressive and should be taken down, rather than just adding a flag noting that a petition may not be consistent with our progressive values, is not the most effective use of one of our most valuable resources: time.
  • Moreover, more often than not, we’d be doing folks on the right a favor if we were to take down their petitions. The truth is that not only are the vast majority of petitions created on MoveOn Petitions progressive, but the vast majority of petitions that aren’t progressive get almost no signatures and earn zero attention. If we were to remove such non-progressive petitions from the site, we’d be giving their creators an opportunity to cry “censorship,” attract media coverage, and build momentum for their campaigns, which likely would otherwise likely go ignored.
  • Additionally, we’ve always had policies to prevent petitions that aren’t progressive from getting the most powerful forms of support that MoveOn provides, and we are making those policies even stronger today (see below). Starting a petition is a good first step for any campaign, but most winning petition campaigns are fueled by additional support from the community of MoveOn members and MoveOn staff, as well as extra platform functionality that is available only to non-flagged petitions. Most significantly, only progressive petitions are sent out to our email list of millions of MoveOn members.
  • Finally, the existence of a handful of non-progressive petitions on our site is not likely to confuse anyone into thinking that MoveOn as an organization is no longer progressive. We’ve built a powerful progressive brand by supporting millions of grassroots activists over the past 15 years and by doing smart, strategic work at important moments that resonates in Washington and in the offices of decision makers across the country, and we’ll continue to do that — and do it more powerfully now, with thousands of MoveOn members running progressive campaigns of their own. It’s our judgment that a tiny number of right-wing petitions, flagged as such, amidst tens of thousands of progressive petitions, do not threaten this brand.

There are of course costs and benefits to our policy of running an open platform, but it’s our judgment that the benefits of keeping our platform open far outweigh the costs – and that keeping the MoveOn Petitions site open to different points of view ultimately does more to advance progressive causes than it does to hinder them.

All that said, the MoveOn members who have contacted me and other staff to express their concerns have made important points and highlighted opportunities for improvement. I’ve appreciated their frank and considered feedback, and the conversations we’ve had have led to decisions to make several changes that will make MoveOn Petitions even harder for those with right-wing views to take advantage of. Here are some of the changes we are now implementing:

  • We are doing more to emphasize that the site is progressive, including making changes to the petition creation page, that should make it less inviting to people who aren’t progressive.
  • Our design team is working on increasing the visual prominence of the “may not be progressive” flag that appears on top of petitions that MoveOn volunteers have identified as potentially not progressive during the vetting process.
  • In addition, we are working on adding this flag to printed versions of the petition – so if a petition creator prints out PDFs with a list of signatories, this flag will appear.
  • We are putting in place new safeguards to make sure that flagged petition creators don’t get any of the active support from MoveOn that other petitions creators do – including things like receiving coaching and training from staff and being connected to other petition creators to coordinate strategy.
  • We are turning off flagged petitions’ automated follow-up emails that thank petition signers for taking action and encourage them to share a petition with others – this is a core source of signature growth for petitions that are not emailed to the MoveOn list and it will no longer be available to right-wing petitions.

With these changes, the odds that any non-progressive campaign would benefit from a MoveOn Petition are close to nil. All that petition creators from the right will be able to do is post their opinion, recruit signers on their own, and contact those signers – things they could do using any number of other sites that offer the same functionality. We won’t help them to organize, or provide any of the forms of support we provide to progressive petition creators — which are the core of what makes our toolset and platform powerful.  And we’ll make clearer that non-progressive petitions do not have MoveOn members’ support.  The line is, functional utility for everyone (for the very basic toolset) — but active support only for petitions that aren’t clearly right-wing.

I want to thank all of the MoveOn members who have engaged with staff on this question. If you’re a MoveOn member who is reading about this issue for the first time, I and the rest of the MoveOn staff would welcome your feedback too, which you can provide via our contact form.

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