Changing the game

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Published: December 21, 2014 12:03:12 AM

A message arrived in my inbox last week from Kirron Kher. I don’t know her, but you can’t ignore her, so I checked it out...

A message arrived in my inbox last week from Kirron Kher. I don’t know her, but you can’t ignore her, so I checked it out. It read: “You might know me as a Bollywood actor and a Lok Sabha MP. I am now seeking your help as a citizen of India. I’ve lost three of my close relatives in road accidents over the years. I am sure you know people who have experienced similar tragedies. Thousands of these tragedies can be reduced if common people were encouraged to help injured people on the road. A Good Samaritan Law will be a first step towards this.”

The Chandigarh MP moved a private member’s Bill on this in the Lok Sabha last week and submitted a petition, signed by over 80,000 people, to health minister JP Nadda. That online petition was powered by Change.org, a US-based website that hosts campaigns across the world on a range of issues: economic and criminal justice, human rights, education, environment, health and safety issues, among others. In India, Change.org has hosted petitions ranging from better security measures at schools in Karnataka (after the rape of a six-year-old girl in Bangalore), making Bangalore safer for women, regulating the sale of acid to prevent acid attacks on women, a petition by the Army Wives Agitation Group to replace ‘unsafe’ Chetak and Cheetah helicopters, another by the Centre for Social Research to demand that sexually explicit content was segregated in Google Play, and, the latest, again after a horrific rape, a petition to mandate that all Uber drivers are given a seven-year background check. There are literally hundreds, some with a local focus, but they are having an impact. The Bangalore school petition led to the state government introducing a series of measures, a law was passed regulating the sale of acid, Google Play segregated content of a sexual nature, and a petition for the construction of a bridge to help the handicapped was also sanctioned.

Online campaigns are gaining in numbers and clout. The Bangalore petition for safe schools collected 1.5 lakh signatures in just one week. No organisation, government or corporation can afford to ignore such a large number; they are all voters, after all. Change.org ensures that all signatures are from a valid email and there is no duplication or duplicity. That may not be entirely possible, but to a large extent it is.

Non-profits like Amnesty International and the Humane Society, highly credible organisations, pay the site to host their campaigns. People who sign up are sent updates, informed about trending petitions and the outcome. It’s easy enough to separate the wheat from the chaff based on who starts the petition. The Good Samaritan one was initiated by a person who had lost their entire family in a car accident; they could have been saved if people who drove past the accident site had stopped and taken the injured to the hospital. The one on Bangalore schools was started by Pavithra Shetty, a concerned mother who had a child in the same school where the rape took place. She wrote: “We have been part of something pathbreaking. Maithreyi, another mother like me, is asking the chief minister to announce a roadmap for making Bangalore safer for women and children.”

Even corporations cannot ignore such online pressure. A teenager in America started a petition to force Gatorade, the energy drink, to remove a potentially harmful chemical from the formulation. The number of signatures grew so large that the parent company, Pepsico, one of the largest and most influential in the world, backed down and complied. That’s the unique thing about creating an online petition. Governments, companies and individuals value their reputations and feel accountable to their constituents and customers. When thousands of people raise their voices about an issue they care about, the message is very hard to ignore. Change.org is not the only one. There are at least five others with a country-specific presence, including Aawaz, co-founded by Canadian-American Ricken Patel, obviously of Indian origin. Change.org is the one active in India, and the petitions on the site have achieved some remarkable results. Sikh basketball players had started a petition to force the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) to allow players to wear turbans or other religious headgear in international matches. FIBA caved in and lifted the ban entirely. It took 65,000 Indian supporters to bring about the change.

Online activism is often considered slacktivism, a pejorative term that describes ‘feel-good’ measures in support of an issue or social cause, that gives slacktivists the illusion that their actions have meaningful social impacts. There are also critics who question the effectiveness and motivation of online activism, but the success stories are impossible to ignore. In April 2011, Change.org was attacked by Chinese hackers. The website claimed that the attack was a result of the success of their online petition demanding the release of artist Ai Weiwei. Ai was released on June 22, 2011, from a Beijing prison, which Change.org deemed a victory for its online campaign. Sitting at your desk or home and signing a petition may seem like a safer and wimpish thing to do compared to hitting the streets and braving the barricades, but it is working, mostly, and that cannot be a bad thing.

The writer is Group Consulting Editor, Features & Special Projects,

The Indian Express

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