Avaaz, with a membership topping 40 million, is one of the princes of the clicktivist phenomenon. These virtual warriors for justice are everywhere and have been for a while, and once you somehow arrive on their mailing list you are going to be bombarded with their earnest updates until you find the magic unsubscribe button that sets you free. Their website looks like the frantic centre for some brilliantly synchronised social experiment of the kind Big Brother would be into if Orwell was writing his book now, and it offers this self-description:
Avaaz — meaning “voice” in several European, Middle Eastern and Asian languages—launched in 2007 with a simple democratic mission: organize citizens of all nations to close the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want.
Which is mistily inspirational in a way that wins universal approval simply by its refusal to commit to any specific course of action. Post stuff like this on Facebook and you get a hundred shares, because of course, by definition, everyone wants to close the gap between the world they have and the world they want. To this extent Avaaz is selling Hallmark cards.
However, more specifically they claim:
Avaaz empowers millions of people from all walks of life to take action on pressing global, regional and national issues, from corruption and poverty to conflict and climate change. Our model of internet organising allows thousands of individual efforts, however small, to be rapidly combined into a powerful collective force.
Their forte – as with all such groups – is of course:
…signing petitions, funding media campaigns and direct actions, emailing, calling and lobbying governments, and organizing “offline” protests and events — to ensure that the views and values of the world’s people inform the decisions that affect us all.
And, we have to admit, Avaaz does this better than almost anyone. Any mainstream social conscience issue you can name, Avaaz will probably be all over it like a rash. Petitions are their game and they have petitions running about everything. Right now they want to stop hunger, ban the Confederate flag, save the whales, stop global warming and find a safe place for Syrians.
Which of course is great and admirable – provided they are what they claim to be, and are truly voicing honest grassroots opinions – not someone’s bought and paid for propaganda.
So, what – beyond the beguiling presentation – is Avaaz? Who set them up? Who pays their bills? Who mans their ramparts?
Follow the money
According to Wiki (quoting the Guardian):
Since 2009, Avaaz has not taken donations from foundations or corporations, nor has it accepted payments of more than $5,000 (£3,100)…Instead, it relies simply on the generosity of individual members, who have now raised over $20m (£12.4m)
$20 million? That’s a lot of generosity right there. But yes, the money is definitely rolling in. In an article from 2012, Empire Strikes Black links to Avaaz’s 990 form for 2010, which demonstrates an annual income from “contributions and grants” of $4,767,187 in 2009, and almost half as much again in 2010. Similar returns from 2012-13 show figures of $11,611,547 and $14,545,459 respectively.
Which if nothing else makes me want to add a “donate” button to our front page. I mean – who knew, right?
The claim that all this comes from “the generosity of individual members” is of course impossible to quantify, as is the claim that Avaaz “doesn’t accept payments of more than $5,000.” We need more information here. Does this mean there’s a ceiling of $5,000 per donor? Or can a single donor hand over unlimited parcels of $5,000? And how about numerous “individual members” from one family or organisation? We seem to be getting a frank disclosure, but on closer analysis we really aren’t being told very much.
Also of some note – according to that Wikipedia page Avaaz was founded in 2007, so the claim that “since 2009, Avaaz has not taken donations from foundations or corporations” obviously implies that before this time they did take such donations. No one at Avaaz seems to have more to say about that though. Do we assume its founders funded it for the first two years? Yes – according to this site, but the links it offers as proof are all dead or hijacked, so this can only be offered as a suggestion at this time.
And who are those founders? Well,that much is no secret. You can read it on their own site:
Avaaz.org was co-founded by Res Publica, a global civic advocacy group, and Moveon.org, an online community that has pioneered internet advocacy in the United States. Our co-founding team was also composed of a group of leading global social entrepreneurs from six countries, including our founding President and Executive Director Ricken Patel, Tom Perriello, Tom Pravda, Eli Pariser, Andrea Woodhouse, Jeremy Heimans, and David Madden.
Who are those guys?
Res Publica and Moveon.org? Ricken Patel, Tom Pravda, Tom Perriello, et al? Who are they? A bit of googling can tell us a certain amount about them.
Res Publica is a bit hard to pin down. Their Wiki link leads nowhere now, and their URL is dead. There seems to be nothing much about them online that adds more information than the brief summary offered by Avaaz, but NGO Monitor tells us they:
received grants totaling $250,000 from the Soros Open Society Institute in 2008.
Though it gives no source so that can’t be verified. This article from the National Catholic Reporter in 2004 fills in a few blanks. It tells us Res Publica was founded by three of the people now running Avaaz – Ricken Patel, Tom Perriello and Tom Pravda, and was – back in 2004 – claiming to be “developing the political and communications infrastructure of the religious left.” Why they have now disappeared from the scene seems unclear, but it’s pretty obvious that Avaaz is basically Res Publica under a different name.
Moveon.org are easier to trace. Their website is still active. They are a Democratic party front group, currently campaigning against GMO salmon, the Confederate flag, Greek austerity and numerous other things, many of which seem eminently reasonable. According to the WaPo they received $1.6 million from “George Soros and his wife” back in 2004.
Now let’s also take a look at those “leading global social entrepreneurs” who co-founded Avaaz.
The most high-profile of these is Ricken Patel. He’s a special darling of mainstream media, which likes doing features on him as a fearless crusader for marginalised truth and justice. I’ve found at least two Guardian articles lauding his virtues, while People Magazine – with bold self-parody – included him in an article on the world’s most eligible hot humanitarians. In 2013 the Observer called him “the global leader of online protest“. That same year Intelligent Life Magazine ran a similarly adulatory piece on him, complete with a pic of Rick sitting in a street cafe, looking hip and caring and keeewl. “Can we change the world, one click at a time?” it asked, before answering “Ricken Patel, a young Canadian, thinks so, and he now has tens of millions of followers to show for it.”
So apparently the neo-liberal, pseudo-left press love this man and really – really – want us to love him too.
His media fans tend to avoid more than a brief summary of Ricken’s life prior to co-founding Avaaz, and becoming its well-paid Executive Director. Maybe because the Oxbridge/Harvard education and stints working for the Rockerfeller Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the United Nations, and consulting for the International Crisis Group don’t fit that well with the carefully cultivated image of a young average guy just trying to make a difference.
The International Crisis Group has George Soros as a “trustee” (my how that man gets around). Other trustees include Wes Clark, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, several retired state department officials, ambassadors, diplomats and prime ministers.
So, a prime breeding ground for potential clicktivists as you can see.
Tom Perriello, the second name on Avaaz’s list of individual founders is a “United States State Department official”, and a lawyer, who “served one term as a U.S. Representative for Virginia’s 5th congressional district.” He is also a member of the Democratic Party. He formerly served as President and CEO of Center for American Progress Action Fund and Counselor for Policy at Center for American Progress.He apparently worked as a “consultant to the International Center for Transitional Justice” in Kosovo (2003), Darfur (2005), and Afghanistan (2007) where he worked on Orwellian-sounding “justice-based security strategies”.
Tom is also an avowed supporter of the war on terror, who, while in the House of Representatives (2009-11) voted for the continuation of U.S. military action in Afghanistan and opposed removing the United States Armed Forces from Pakistan.
He is also on chummy terms with Barack Obama.
If you are thinking this must be a different Tom Perriello from the one listed as an Avaaz founder, sorry, no. Check his Wiki page for yourself. It’s all there. Tom is that rare animal – a state department official and ex-congressman who also happens to be a radical activist. And here’s a pic of him arranging the “fire Wolfowitz” banners in preparation for a big Avaaz demo back in 2007 to prove it.
The third of the triumvirate who were also the original founders of the vanished ResPublica, Tom Pravda is a bit more of a mystery. He has no wiki page, and not much online biography. I haven’t found any photos of him. He allegedly attended Balliol College, Oxford (like Patel). SourceWatch seems to be the only source for this, and I don’t know where they got their information, but here is what they say:
Tom holds a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Balliol College, Oxford, where he won several academic scholarships and prizes. He has worked for the United Nations Development Program in New York, and as a diplomat dealing with European Union development policy and relations with the Middle East and Africa for the Foreign Office of the UK Government. He designed and oversaw a research project looking at ex-combatants’ attitudes to justice in post-conflict Sierra Leone for the International Center for Transitional Justice. He has written about African politics for the international consulting group, Oxford Analytica, and interned for Global Witness and the World Development Movement.”
So, Tom Pravda, late of the United Nations Development Program and the UK Foreign Office is from very much the same school as his two ResPublica bros.
At this point the unduly cynical might suggest this is a passing strange set of CVs to find in the founders of any grassroots political movement. But we are not such cynics, are we?
Avaaz and US warmongering
Sadly, the strangeness doesn’t stop there. In their own very different way Avaaz and their endless petitions can be as unwittingly helpful to certain western interest groups as can the ever-helpful ISIS. In Syria, for example, between 2012 and late 2013, just when the US and NATO were trying to whip up public opinion for a war with Assad, along came grassroots, no-agenda Avaaz wielding petition after petition demanding the west send “3,000 international monitors” and impose a no-fly zone over the entire country. This is how they put it in June 2013:
To the Arab League, European Union, United States, and Friends of Syria: As global citizens, we call on you to take immediate action to stop the deadly terror in Syria. Enough is enough. We ask you to immediately demand a ceasefire to stop the bloodshed so that parties can come to the negotiating table to agree on a way forward. Until a ceasefire is reached, we call on you to work together and with the international community to enforce a no fly zone to stop the bombardment of Syria’s civilians and ensure that humanitarian aid reaches those most in need.
Avaaz, ladies and gentlemen. the only grassroots organisation in the world that actually begged the US to go to war with Syria.
And they’re still doing it. Even after their biggest fans felt the need to point out their calls for action of various kinds might actually be getting people killed. Their latest effort, from June 2015, repeats the recent US claim that Assad had just dropped “chlorine gas” on children. Avaaz shows just as little scepticism about this, unproven allegation as they did about the previous one from 2013 that later turned out to be a lie.
Avaaz does seem to like no-fly zones, because they also campaigned for the one in Libya that was used as a shield for a covert US invasion and the murder and rape of the head of state.
By this point it will probably come as no great surprise that Avaaz has a lot to say about Russia…
Yadda y yadda.
So far they aren’t calling for no-fly zones over Moscow but if they start doing so, I think we might be able to guess where US foreign policy is heading.
Understandably some in the alternative media are beginning to suspect Avaaz is being a little economical with the truth about its real agenda. They are even unkind enough to suggest the whole thing is a Soros-created front to trick the unwitting and corral potentially dissident opinion.
Patel believes in using the exponentially growing number of internet users to his advantage with online petitions and propaganda slogans; as well as the ability to syphon donations from ignorant members to the tune of $13.5 million annually and $3 million during fund-raising events. While Avaaz claims to facilitate the individuality of protesters, it uses mob-mentality tactics to create a large online community of people who will defend the organization.
It’s a sobering thought which certainly puts that too-easy clicktivism in a whole new light. Their cutesy cosiness and one-stop solutions do make them an obvious candidate for diversionary “designer activism.” Who’s going to bother to check out “LetsJustBeNiceDotOrg” before clicking on their bright green “save the earth” campaign button? I mean, we all want to save the earth, right? And those aesthetically pleasing, smiling, perfectly ethnically diverse guys in the PR photos, with their matching (green) logo tee shirts are just so beguiling. Click, sign, move on, with the comfy feeling the earth is now a bit safer, thanks – ever so slightly – to you.
We’ve all been there, and all felt slightly queasy about the unanswered questions, but clicked anyway. That is human nature. If we wait around long enough to realise we’ve signed a petition for involuntary euthanasia or something, it’s just too late. We’re already a non-erasable statistic. A clicktivist who has clicked and been counted for eternity.
We have to admit, if shills and honeytraps are needed, then some kind of faux, or semi-faux clicktivist website would be a terrific place to start.
So what of Avaaz? Should we offer it and its gang of super-well-connected founders the benefit of the doubt? Does it matter why Ricken wants us to sign up and save whales, or why Tom Perriello was out there campaigning for Wolfowitz to be fired? Isn’t the fact they are speaking up enough?
No, I don’t think so. Motive matters, and if we ignore it we risk losing the meaning behind anything we try to achieve. We become as hypocritical as those we allow to set our agenda. Any organisation that tries to put a moral glaze on calling for the invasion of sovereign countries, and the inevitable resulting murder of innocents is not worth defending in my view. If we just let their obviously corrupt, or at very least hugely misconceived agenda pass without comment we are conniving at a deception. Well-intentioned people risk having their energies misdirected or wasted in causes that are ill-defined or even entirely bogus. And one discredited clicktivist can easily cast doubt on the many genuine grassroots movements trying very hard to do good.
Avaaz is not what it pretends to be. If I was a member I’d go find the unsubscribe button that would stop their malignantly saccharine agitprop taking up any more space in my inbox.
And if those 41 million trusting souls all did that I think the earth might actually be a bit more saved.
If you think Avaaz is betraying its donors, its millions of followers and its avowed objectives, why not follow the principles of grassroots activism they claim to represent and let them know how you feel?
“The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.” — Teju Cole
Welcome to the brave new world
Avaaz: the lobbyist that masquerades as global activism
Avaaz.org (we encourage you to explore the site exhaustively).
Avaaz on Facebook
How the People’s Climate March became a corporate PR campaign
For direct-transfer bank details click here.