Ben Rattray

Changing Politics

Air Date: March 5, 2016

Founder of Change.org Ben Rattray talks about empowering people to participate in politics.

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. The revolution will be viral. No one is more attuned to contemporary online activism than our guest today. Founder and CEO of the world’s largest petition website, Ben Rattray leads Change.org. Millions of users have transformed from disgruntled citizens, bystanders to or victims of Big Brother’s abuse, to an army of Davids, that is, versus Goliaths. As Fast Company reported, Change has become a “consumer watchdog,” on behalf of a sometimes civically deprived, if ignorant, nation.

Which leads us to this 2016 election. Rattray has launched Change Politics to provide a vehicle for citizen empowerment during this presidential campaign. Through its new mobile platform, voters can be informed, submit questions directly to candidates, and create a personalized virtual ballot to prepare for the polling station. “I think there’s a false idea that people are just clicktivists, slacktivists sitting on their couch, or people in the streets,” Rattray has said, “there’s an intimate intertwining between the two that support each other.”

The integrity of so-called “hashtag activism” will be tested this election year if we, the citizens, turn out to vote. Then are we not a faux democracy? So, I want to commend Ben today on the inauguration of Change Politics, and ask him if that’s his intention. Welcome.

RATTRAY:: Thank you very much. Great to be here. HEFFNER: Is it your intention, Ben, with Change Politics, to prove that we’re not a faux democracy, and that we can turn out to the ballot box in as strong, robust numbers as we click?

RATTRAY: I think there’s a misconception that people, by virtue of not participating, and the way voting currently exists, that they don’t want to engage in civic space around politics. But the reality is the experience of voting for most people is incredibly disempowering. They are part of this, this electoral process, this horserace that is obsessed with polls and with paid advertisements. And at the end of that, after billions of dollars are spent, they show up at the polls, look at a ballot—it has dozens of different offices. Most of the people, they have no idea who they are, despite this massive attention during the election cycle. And it just doesn’t feel like the experience of an engaged citizenry trying to make an impact.

And what we’re trying to do is to transform that experience, use mobile technology to empower people to both directly participate within campaigns and walk into a polling booth, fully empowered to be able to share information with their personal network, the friends and the organizations they trust, to then direct their vote intelligently. And we think that transformed experience will improve voting and improve voting turnout.

HEFFNER: You were saying to me, to begin, that you think this digital connection can incentivize voters, and are you talking about millennials specifically, or the widest spectrum of the electorate?

RATTRAY: One thing we’ve found that’s very interesting around Change.org, broadly speaking, is the incredible diverse array of demographics that participate in the site. The, the average age of people that use Change.org to engage civically is almost 40 years old, with people across different demographics. I do think, though, that for Change Politics, while we will definitely address a wide demographic, that people that will be most likely to adopt earliest, using their smartphone, will be millennials. It’s a population that is very used to using smartphones to participate in other ways, to shop or to communicate with friends. Uh, and we think it is an easy transition to have a very different voting experience than we have today.

HEFFNER: Our civic fabric, it strikes me, is more complicated than purchasing a book on Amazon.

RATTRAY: It’s definitely a case that we don’t think we are the exact same, analogous to other consumer internet applications, because, instead of transacting something entirely on the internet, the only way Change.org is successful is if the things that happen online have impact offline. It has to actually change things in the world. We’re not interested in having people sign petitions and have that be the extent of their experience. That is the first action that they take, deeply more engaged subsequent to that, and oftentimes take offline action for real world impact.

And we have to, we think, deliver that full experience, of actually getting companies to change policies, and elected officials to change their practices and policies as well. And so we do think that there’s a higher bar for us than a place like YouTube, or a place like Instagram, or even like Uber. Uh, but we think that that is totally possible, with a new experience where we’re giving people the opportunity to do something they already want to do, which is have an impact on causes they care about, but do so much more effectively than ever before.

HEFFNER: What share of the population do you think has that natural instinct, that affinity for democratic governance? Do you think that it’s an overwhelming share?

RATTRAY: I think that there are two different approaches to trying to determine the, the likely engagement of citizens. The first, that is most frequently used, is what percentage of the public wants to participate in explicitly political actions, especially those that happen in a federal context.

The other are people that want to have impact on the policies that change their lives locally. And I think one of the misconceptions is, because a sizable percentage of the public doesn’t necessarily want to take action on what Congress is doing, that they don’t want to take action civically. We see the opposite. 99% of actions, decisions that are made, that impact our lives, don’t happen in D.C. They happen in state governments or local governments.

And what we’re empowering people to do is to change things like better food for their kid’s school. Saving a local park. Uh, changing things that happen directly in their community. And when you empower that type of action, you get a very different response, a much wider percentage of the population. And you also get the opportunity, through that kind of local engagement, to then also engage people in a national way, in a fa-, fashion that you wouldn’t have, previously.

HEFFNER: What have you found, Ben, to be the most compelling example of a petition, in effect, triggering grassroots activism that now informs Change Politics?

RATTRAY: Uh, the, the actions that we see that are most effective are oftentimes those are unexpected, those that don’t necessarily take action on a, on a federal side, but actually change things in, in contexts that are far outside of traditional politics, uh, especially in the local context. And so what’s informed Change Politics, is instead of focusing exclusively on the presidential campaign—though we have launched focused on that campaign cycle—we actually think Change Politics will be most disruptive locally, in the same Change.org has been.

I think the biggest challenge is people having no idea who to vote for, for city council, for schoolboard, for judgeships, for ballot initiatives, for even their state representatives. These are immensely consequential offices, incredibly overlooked. And in the same way that social action has oftentimes been overlooked, uh, in a local context, and we are addressing that through Change.org, Change Politics, I think, will transform the experience of participation in elections beyond just the presidential.

HEFFNER: And if all politics is local, as you suggest, and I think is true, then how are you going to drive the discourse in a way that gives a proper share of the limelight to local issues?

RATTRAY: I think one thing that we’ve seen that’s been interesting is, when people are afforded the opportunity to directly communicate with, say, their mayor, or a city council member, or a schoolboard member, uh, we thought, initially, that that wouldn’t be of interest to many people. But, the reality is, when they have a direct channel of communication, because the immediate impact those elected officials have on their lives and the lives of their children, they’re much more engaged. So, in the same fashion, what we will be doing is enabling citizens to directly ask questions of candidates for mayor, or city council, or school board, any office, and be able to get direct responses. So you can submit questions, vote on the questions you most want responded to, and then literally receive direct video responses from candidates in a, in a virtual town hall-like fashion. And we think that is going to be highly engaging, based on what we’ve seen in the past in Change.org.

It’s also the case that we think that when we allow local people to publish endorsements, reasons why they support different candidates, we’re going to be able to create a new narrative that actually generates a lot more commentary and deliberation about local candidates relative to the historic disproportionate focus on the presidential campaign.

HEFFNER: Are you going to reveal in real-time the analytics of who’s paying attention and who’s not?

RATTRAY: What we’ll be able to do is, in real-time, have a new type of poll. Instead of polling, uh, being a random assortment of people, oftentimes difficult to ascertain if they’re representative of the population, and mostly a trailing indicator of what has been in the past supported, we think we will be a leading indicator. What we’re effectively doing is creating a new influencer graph for politics.

What we’re letting people say, “Well, who do I trust the most? Who do I most respect in my community? I want to follow those people like I can follow anybody on Twitter.” And by doing so, we are surfacing the most trusted people, the most followed people. And so then what we can do is when they publish their endorsements, their recommendations for local candidates, we can show, well, here is a trending future indicator of likely voting, because the most influential people, the people that are most trusted, not the most wealthy, but the most respected people in this community, here’s what they’re saying about the candidates. And they will be influencing voters in the future.

HEFFNER: You mentioned polls, but I’m really speaking to the every moment of this campaign we’re already in the midst of. To what extent are you going to not shame people into concern for their democracy, but indicate that X or Y county, uh, is, again, in real-time, most engaged, and alert people on Change.org, or on your partner social media websites, that they need to follow it, too?

RATTRAY: Yeah. Uh, I think one, one thing we’ve found that’s been interesting is the, the competitive dynamic that different localities have in certain contexts. So, if you think that other localities, uh, other people in other communities are active civically, especially if they touch your friend graph in some way, it makes you much more likely to want to engage, as well.
And so we’ll be sharing as much anonymized information as we can in real-time, to expose what’s happening, what’s bubbling up, what issues are becoming most engaging and, and interesting. And working with both local and national media to surface the conversations that are happening on Change Politics, the, the questions that are being most asked, and the things that the public find most interesting, not just what the candidates want to talk about.

HEFFNER: As I said in the introduction, it sounds like a new re-invention, most warranted, of the fourth estate. You’re providing an alternative to the horserace driven coverage.

RATTRAY: You know, rather than trying to replace democracy, we are trying to democratize democracy. We are trying to enable the full potential, the realization of what an ideal democracy might be, where people can directly engage with the candidates, and then when they are voting, they’re voting with hyper-information about those candidates.

Now, what we don’t expect is that the public will dramatically transform the way they live, and somehow consume hours upon hours of information about civics, about the candidates, to be able to vote. We take people as they are, not as we want them to be. And they are oftentimes very busy, and sometimes distracted, and so we want to make it as easy as possible for the public to engage and to be informed voters in a way that we would all like, but in a fashion that lowers the barriers to that kind of participation. And we think it is through making it as easy as possible to find trusted information that we create better voting, and a better democracy.

HEFFNER: How are you going to ensure that the information submitted by participants—some of your petition-makers in the past—is largely reliable? In other words, that it’s not hijacked by folks with an agenda?
RATTRAY: What we rely on is the, the trust graph of social networks. So, rather than trying to—

HEFFNER: And it’s going to, in effect, going to be synced with social media so that you are tracking your friends, and if any misinformation is spread, it can be detected easily.

RATTRAY: Exactly. It’ll be deeply integrated with Facebook and with Twitter. And what you tend to find is that when people publish content and their opinions in those contexts, it is easy to call out people that are spreading misinformation.

HEFFNER: A past guest of this show, Rick Shenkman, is the author of a new book, Political Animals, and in it he says, “What seems especially helpful is creating a vast reserve of social capital on which people can draw. People need to feel their voices heard, and that their leaders are responsive.” In the book, he’s explaining the Trump phenomenon, and he was fortuitous in predicting that, uh, our animalistic urge and, um, and the exploitation of the demagogue is kind of inbred, not necessarily in American democracy, but in civilization.

He says, in the same way that young people in the inner city have been paid to pay attention to their schoolwork, and scholastic achievements have been the result, he says, “This suggests that if we want smart voters, we need to start paying them, and if we want people to follow the news closely, we should set up a website where people can take a weekly current events quiz, and if they pass, pay them.” “Want people to vote? Pay them,” he says.

RATTRAY: Seems to be an unsustainable solution. And rather than trying to, uh, give people different incentives, we think that people already want to participate, but how do we make that a much better experience? You know, in Silicon Valley-speak, we’d say, we talk about “user experience,” and, and I say, you know, the user experience of civic participation, currently, is terrible. People oftentimes they, they want to take action, they want to engage, but they hear nothing at all from their elected representatives. They think they have no impact whatsoever. It isn’t clear to them whether what they do matters at all.

And if you can change that, if you can dramatically improve the user experience of civic participation and voting, you can tap into the, I think, latent potential interest people have in making a difference. And if you, uh, leverage the opportunity that I think the smartphones can bring to people’s participation, you have an entire new opportunity for that kind of engagement.

HEFFNER: There are hotspots in our democracy—San Bernardino, which obviously suffered that terrorist attack, Ferguson, Staten Island have been the epicenters of racial disharmony. Are you going to pay special attention to those areas?

RATTRAY: What we see on Change.org already is that when there is, uh, a crisis, or a disaster, or a tragic event that occurs, there’s a massive explosion of civic activity and participation, not just in that physical space, but around the nation. So in the case, the tragic case in Ferguson, Michael Brown’s parents actually started a Change.org campaign to call for cameras on cops in a national context, directly subsequent to the killing, tragically, of their son.

Uh, and we seen this in, in each different context around the country, in fact, around the world. We have staff around the world that respond to these crises. And so, uh, we think that, rather than trying to force things upon people, by providing the tools that empower them to take action on the issues they care about, these types of things naturally emerge.

HEFFNER: And what areas of public policy do you think emerge from your holistic review over these last years, that are areas of, um, potential fruit, where the population will, will have that incentive to be informed, and want to make change?

RATTRAY: Uh, what we’ve seen is, is a vast array and diversity of campaigns launched in the site. More than 20,000 citizen campaigns get launched on Change.org every single month, and this happens all around the world. Um, if I were to tease out amongst those some of the trends we had, uh, end up seeing, uh, a lot of those have to do with the issues that, that impact, directly, peoples’ lives. Health is a very common one. We see remarkable campaigns.

As a quick example, as an illustration of this, there’s a young woman, uh, a couple of years ago, who has cystic fibrosis. And she needed a double lung transplant to live. Uh, and there’s this old policy that’s, uh, archaic, uh, in HHS, Health and Human Services, that prevented kids under the age of 12 from receiving adult lungs, even if they’re at the top of the donor list. Uh, and so she was not going to get, uh, uh, a lung transplant, was going to die. Her mom starts a Change.org campaign in her defense. 300,000 people join, it becomes a huge media story, it embarrasses HHS. They turn around, change the policy, give her two lungs, saves her life, and change the policy for all other kids, as well.

Now that, itself, was a remarkable example, but then it inspired moms across the country who are facing tragic circumstances with their own kids being denied services, they think, unjustly, without any scientific backing. And it had this huge flourishing, uh, of those types of campaigns, and therefore civic participation. So, what we see are things that impact people’s lives directly, and the lives of their children are the kind of things they are most likely to want to take action on.

HEFFNER: And the extension of that, from micro to macro, can be Change Politics, can it not?

RATTRAY: Yeah, what we see always is, is change as, you know, you know, and as anybody that studies social justice movements knows, comes, almost always, from the ground up. And if it doesn’t come from the ground up, it starts from local community organizing that is seeded across a country. Uh, and if you care about building powerful movements, you need to start in a distributed way that doesn’t start with trying to change a law in Congress, but actually goes from town to town and city to city, to build national movements. This is the, one of the many lessons of the civil rights movement in America.

Uh, and we, what we are doing are building the tools that lower the barriers to enable those kind of movements of flourish across a country. Whether it is a movement around, uh, gay rights around the Boy Scouts—there’s a huge flourishing of a hundred-plus campaigns on Change.org that helped change that policy. Or movement around, um, any issue for criminal justice, it’s not a national law that needs to get passed, it is hundreds of local contexts that need to change for that to be changed at a national level. And those are the kinds of movements that we are really proud to be able to provide tools to amplify.

HEFFNER: The ultimate extension of that is a virtual ballot box, literally. And I’m sure there have been petitions to the FEC along those lines, in our effort to modernize democracy, the fullest democratization would be to provide people access to click-to-vote. But that really raises a conundrum: those critics of clicktivism would say, “Well, we need folks out to, uh, out in the, in the, you know, local elections, in order to really discern that they mean it. Otherwise, you’re basically giving folks, uh, a key, uh, without, you know, really vetting what, what, uh, what’s inside.”

RATTRAY: Yeah, it’s too easy.
HEFFNER: So, is it too easy?

RATTRAY: Our perspective on this is that the biggest problem to solve isn’t so much making it incredibly easy to vote. It is making a vote more effective, and highly informed voters. And so, independent of whether we made it easier to vote, if you change the way people vote, if instead of people currently voting largely based on party and, frankly, political ads, which are the biggest driver of name recognition, which is the biggest driver of who one might vote for. Uh, if people are not increasingly voted based on the opinions and the perspectives of the people and the organizations they trust, and they can access that information easily, we think it will dramatically improve the voter experience. It’ll make people vote more in a line with their values, in an informed fashion,, and encourage more people to vote. Even if you didn’t make it easier to vote, by just making it a better experience.

Now, we also think that, certainly at least the process of registering to vote should be easier. Um, but as to the question about whether we should have direct online voting, in a simple way, on your phone, uh, I think we are actually less passionate about making that happen than about making the experience of getting information about who you might want to vote for more accessible.

HEFFNER: How do you explain the, the lack of, um, bodies on the street, when it seems like we are ever, um, opinionated online … uh, but don’t have the motivation to materialize physically?

RATTRAY: I mean I think there is a common mis-, sort of, uh, -conception of what are the necessary components of most effective social movements. And there’s a conflation of, uh, a powerful movement and physical presence, where because in the heart of social justice movements in the United States in the 60s, physically going out was a necessary component of having real impact, we presume now, 50-plus years hence, that that is the same, most effective tactic to go win a campaign.

The reality is, any generation that is trying to mobilize for mass change uses the most effective technologies that are available to that generation at that time. Whether it is telephones to spread information at that time, or pagers, that happened in the early-2000s, for lots of revolutionary movements. Or now, the internet, increa-, increasingly, smartphones. Uh, and we think, while mobilizing offline is certainly a powerful tool in the toolbox of social activists, it is not the exclusive one. And if you can mobilize millions of people online, and change their habits, whether their voting habits, or their consumption habits with companies, you can have as much impact as you might have if you sit and protest.

In fact, in many cases, more. If you’re a major corporation, and you have a thousand people protest out in front of your offices, and you’re the company, what do you do? You wait, and you see, and you wait, and eventually, they will leave. But the powerful thing about being able to organize people online is they will not leave. So they have the capacity for mass-mobilization on a recurring basis for an indefinite period of time, taking subsequent actions which might include, but are not exclusive to, that offline action.

And so we think a more sophisticated perspective of the most effective mechanism of social justice movements is a really important component of winning those campaigns.

HEFFNER: There is endurance in numbers and in metrics, undeniably. The question of the persistence, uh, of that enduring online number of petitioners, and, and I have to raise this as we conclude, Ben, because, according to a recent Institute of Politics poll at Harvard University, the Kennedy School: millennials said that they wanted to fight ISIS, but a very small percentage said they would be able to, they would be willing to put the combat gear on and go, and, and do it themselves. Does that not speak to that paradox, or maybe hypocrisy, in what you’re willing to say online or do online, and you’re doing in, in real life.

RATTRAY: I mean, I don’t know that, I don’t think that it’s unique to this generation that they want to create change but not go with—

HEFFNER: But not do it themselves?

RATTRAY: … at the point of a gun, uh, especially when it includes warfare. Uh, but I, what I did want to—

HEFFNER: But, but, do you think it’s really the, the pacifism, a, a peacemaking, or do you think it’s, it’s just not really putting your money where your mouth is?

RATTRAY: I think most people don’t want to have to go kill other people as a means of trying to advance social change. Um, and there’s a real hesitance, in general, as we saw—

HEFFNER: Fair, fair.

RATTRAY: …I think from sort of, every generation concerned about actually having to physically put their life at risk. Um, but I do want to affirm that I recognize that you look across the social media landscape—to your question about, um, the persistence of these movements—one of the challenges, historically, of things like Twitter, uh, or Facebook, which I think are immensely powerful platforms in, in their own right. But one of the challenges is how ephemeral it is. You have 100,000 people tweet at the same issue at the same time, but an hour later, it is gone, right. And there’s no sort of persistent mobilization.

The reason Change.org exists is to wrap your arms around those people, who otherwise would have just episodic, ephemeral action, be able to make it more systemic, mobilize then, a million people who can, on a recurring basis, not just today, but tomorrow, next month, and next year, on that same issue, as a community. And that is the potent power of online campaigns that can create offline change.

HEFFNER: Ben, I congratulate you on the launch of Change Politics and all of the work you’ve been doing over the last decade.

RATTRAY: Thank you so much.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind, to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.