Avaaz, the Sixth Estate?

March 15, 2013 • Digital News • by

After the Internet has robbed news media of a large portion of their revenue, it has set a new, higher goal –to provide hard news. While many news organizations today, including the BBC, are continuing to lay off journalists in the hope of cutting costs, petition platforms are expanding their role, not only as mediators in political discussions and agenda setting, but also to news distribution. There are several such platforms, for instance 38 Degrees and Change.org, but the crowd-funded Avaaz.org, which has recently launched its own news service, is by far the most popular today. Moreover, Avaaz seems to be one of the first media organizations to make full use of the advantages of the digital era.

Avaaz, which means “voice” in Persian and several other languages, was launched in 2007 by the advocacy group Res Publica and the online community Moveon.org. It is a self-proclaimed people-powered network with a mission to “close the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want”. Like any other social media network, the platform is open for anyone to start a petition, but Avaaz uses complex selection criteria to make sure that the promoted cause is justified. Its management claims that its democratic agenda is guaranteed by its purely member-funded nature. In an interview with The Guardian two years ago, Ricken Patel, one of Avaaz’ co-founders, referred to the platform’s members as his bosses. The petitions on Avaaz vary from pressuring political parties and authoritarian regimes to ecological challenges.  Although Avaaz provides no paid services and all their information is freely accessible, in 2011 it raised more than seven million US dollars in donations; roughly six million more than it had five years ago.

The vast amount of information received from people for the petitions has allowed Avaaz to generate news content and has inspired the platform to become a news medium. Supported by 97% of the platform’s members, the Avaaz Daily Briefing was launched last September. The news service, as was described in an e-mail to Avaaz members, would offer “different, smarter and more accurate content that would explain the protests, yet avoids sensationalism.” This year’s ongoing agenda setting poll conducted by Avaaz’ administration, shows that more than 65% of the respondents support  expanding the Avaaz Daily Briefing.

It is still hard to imagine how Avaaz’ news stories would differ from the mainstream media in terms of objectivity and accuracy. The questions that arise here are: who writes the stories? Who provides the information? How can the information be verified? Does the opposing side have a say? What are the other side’s arguments? But those are all questions that any respectable news medium should ask itself, thus it is hardly going to be more accurate content that is going to differentiate Avaaz Daily. It can, however, provide “smarter content” by analyzing the vast database of names, causes, and actions it has collected through its 115 million plus actions worldwide. Covering topics that are emotionally closer to the public is only one of the most obvious uses of the data. Recognizing important stories prior to mainstream media is yet another advantage of possessing such data.

At the same time, Avaaz’ stories are more than just articles. Avaaz has no intention of reporting stock-market and entertainment news; its field of coverage is strictly limited to the stories that need action from the people. Most often these stories are politically charged and allow concerned citizens to express solidarity by joining a cause, which they hope will catch the attention of people in power either through the petition itself or at least by sparking public debate.

Critics often argue that Avaaz has turned political activism into lazy “clicktivism”, but the network’s management disagrees. In a recent article published by The Guardian, Avaaz’ Campaigns Director Alice Jay responds to the criticism saying: “No one calls Gandi a ‘walktivist’ or Rosa Parks a ‘sitavist’. The internet is really just the place where this change is happening…” It is hard to judge whose side the truth is on. Surprisingly, there has been little or no work done in academia to study either the effect of such activism websites on journalism and media or their influence on the development of important political issues. But in practice Avaaz has moved from a simple online petitioning tool to a more complex advocacy organism. Ironically, one of the first campaigns to take Avaaz members from the comfort of their online accounts to the streets of London was the anti-Rupert Murdoch campaign in 2011, according to The Guardian. According to the Avaaz fiscal report, made available publicly on their website, most of the funding raised is used to finance program activity. Thus, in 2011 Avaaz provided Syrian activists with satellite phones to bypass the communication blackout. Today even journalists from mainstream media are increasingly turning to Avaaz as a source of information, be it from expert comments from Avaaz management or numbers that show public support for a cause.

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