MANILA, Philippines–Change.org founder Ben Rattray was struck by one particular petition that appeared on the popular petition website—the one about a collapsed wall beside a school in a remote Zamboanga del Sur town that posed an absolute danger to the pupils.
It was posted by an online group of young people called Checkmyschool.org in October 2012. It gathered nearly 3,000 signatures, enough to send officials of the Department of Education (DepEd) scrambling to inspect what came to be called the “landslide wall” at Otto Lingue National High School.
Sen. Pia Cayetano was sufficiently roused to provide the funds for the repair of the wall. The local government of Pagadian City came out vowing to protect the students.
The ripple effect of the change that every successful petition on Change.org brings is what excites and inspires Rattray, 32, who was chosen by Time Magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2012 because of how the social media platform that he founded has revolutionized the way people campaign for political or social change.
“In many ways, [the landslide wall] is a very small victory but it is illustrative of what is possible not in one town or city but in two and then in 10 and dozens and hundreds and it starts to facilitate better communication and accountability from everyday citizens and local governments,” Rattray told reporters during a recent visit to Manila.
Petitioning for change is not new to Filipinos. Rattray himself noted that the Philippines has done it collectively not just once but twice through the Edsa People Power Revolutions.
While taking to the streets in protest actions is still the norm in the country, online social activism is quickly spreading among Filipino netizens.
This doesn’t surprise him, said Rattray, considering that the Philippines is reportedly the social media capital of the world.
Change.org in the Philippines started with 27,000 users in April this year and quickly jumped to over 300,000 today, with at least 350 active petitions, said Christine Roque, the campaigner for Change.org Pilipinas.
These include a call to oust Sen. Tito Sotto for alleged acts of plagiarism; a nuclear research specialist asking the government for the release of their benefits this Christmas; the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) asking Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala to transfer Mali, the elephant at Manila Zoo to a sanctuary in Thailand; 14-year-old Jann Ericko Medina’s call for Sen. Edgardo Angara to amend the cybercrime law; a campaign to put up bike lanes in Metro Manila; and a call to President Aquino no less to save the former home in Laguna of national hero Jose Rizal’s mother.
Aside from the “landslide wall” triumph, Change.org Pilipinas can claim victories in the revocation of the hijab (Muslim veil) ban of a Zamboanga City school; performer Sting deciding to transfer the venue of his Manila concert from the SM Mall of Asia to Araneta Coliseum in protest against the cutting of trees in SM Baguio; and the holding of the 2013 Palarong Pambansa in Negros Oriental.
Change.org has released an infographic worldwide that features the “landslide wall” victory alongside that of the parents of murdered American teenager Trayvon Martin and a call for Seventeen Magazine to stop “photoshopping” its models as significant examples of advocacies to be found on the website.
There are many other “small victories” that Change.org has seen worldwide—from India to South Africa to the United States to South America.
All these petitions, according to Rattray, are a “massive number of small movements that begin from the ground up.”
“People don’t see issues as abstract entities at the national level. They see how they impact real people’s lives and build solidarity … [which] cross borders and boundaries that traditionally exist, between rich and poor, north and south and between one country or another,” he said.
Overall, the petitions brought to Change.org, the world’s largest online petition site with 25 million users, are mostly about human rights issues.
Rattray attributes this to the empowerment that social media platforms like Change.org give people.
“It’s that people don’t feel empowered and when they do feel empowered through social media platforms like Change.org, they engage in ways that you almost never expected. It dramatically increases; every campaign that wins generates more campaigns that generate more wins and ultimately, you have this virtual cycle of civic participation and activity,” he said.
According to Rattray, social media allows the democratization of power, such that people are able to “elevate their existing interest and I think when you feel you can make a difference and you feel empowered, you start to take on more important issues.”
“And the reason people don’t is when they feel they can’t make a difference,” he said.
Change.org also encourages people to “think not just about national politics but daily change,” he said.
“The first thing we recommend people to do is actually start with local, specific, achievable objectives, which is some of the most important,” he said.
Already a user-friendly online site, Change.org uses the vernacular in all the countries in which it is available. In the Philippines, Roque has translated to Filipino the main texts to be found on Change.org.
Rattray, the second of five children, did not have a background in activism before he launched Change.org a few years ago.
He was a Stanford University and London School of Economics graduate whose great dream was to become an investment banker on Wall Street.
Then one day, his younger brother revealed that he was gay and that he had suffered from the trauma of discrimination.
“When he came out as gay, it was sort of a shock for me and for a moment, frankly, of shame,” Rattray said. He told Time Magazine that he himself had made fun of homosexuals when he was in high school.
“He had personal struggles but didn’t feel empowered to take those personal passions to advance a wider sense of justice that other younger people are suffering from discrimination and bullying because they’re gay,” Rattray said of his brother.
His brother’s experience prompted Rattray to develop Change.org. His introduction to Facebook in 2005 gave him the idea of how potent social media could be.
Today, Rattray’s brother is actively involved in LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender/transsexual) advocacies.
Change.org was by no means an overnight success. It took a while before online activists and the media took notice of the site.
Today, Rattray himself has become the No. 1 endorser of Change.org.
He was named by a US online business magazine as one of the world’s sexiest CEOs and The New York Times has cited him as one of Silicon Valley’s most eligible bachelors. Rattray calls such accolades a “distraction” but accepts them only if they would help his organization. His mother, though, is over the moon about them, he said.
Rattray believes that it is the effect of shaming people, companies or even governments that makes online activism effective and gets the “targets of the complaints” to act on them, or at the very least provide some explanation.