MoveOn began in 1998 with a campaign to prevent the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. The group had a one-sentence petition – Congress must immediately censure President Clinton and ‘move on’ to pressing issues facing the country – which half a million people signed. It failed: Congress impeached Clinton in November, though he was acquitted.
2003 Iraq war
MoveOn had its most dramatic period of growth before and during the US-led invasion of Iraq. It circulated an anti-war petition calling for ‘No War on Iraq’, which was delivered to members of Congress before a crucial vote, co-ordinated letter-writing campaigns, helped form the Win Without War coalition, and launched a controversial TV commercial. In February 2003, it sponsored a ‘Virtual March on Washington’. The war went ahead anyway.
Avaaz was founded in 2007, and one of its earliest campaigns was over anti-regime protests in Burma and the crackdown that followed. Nearly a million Avaaz members signed an electronic petition, and thousands donated more than $325,000 in four days. Much of the money went on technology to help the opposition ‘break the blackout’ on the media. The group collaborated with the older and bigger Open Society Institute.
Avaaz, 38Degrees, and GetUp! all campaigned to get agreement at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference. They worked together with other organizations, in part through the TckTckTck group for climate action. The conference failed; it generated some scepticism about working with other groups in this way, and about electronic activism as the only lever.
Uganda gay rights
Avaaz mounted a campaign against anti-gay legislation in Uganda in 2010 that would have made homosexuality punishable by death. Its petition attracted more than 450,000 signatures and the Bill was dropped. It was revived in modified form last year, with some key provisions – including the death penalty – removed.
Avaaz and 38Degrees ran a series of campaigns against Rupert Murdoch and his corporations, over the News of the World and his ambition to buy out BskyB, the satellite broadcaster. These included internet campaigning, but also leafleting and street actions. Their campaign helped to mobilise and give shape to opposition to Murdoch. The News Corporation takeover proposal for BSkyB was withdrawn and the News of the World closed down.
Avaaz was slow to move into Arab politics, though it had campaigned actively in Israel. But it reacted quickly to the Arab Spring, raising money and providing backing for protest movements, giving them satellite phones and other communication equipment. It focused on Syria with petitions and financial support. Avaaz claims to have delivered more than $2 million of medical equipment to the worst affected areas to keep underground hospitals going as well as setting up a network of more than 400 citizen journalists across the country. It has also helped smuggle in foreign journalists.