Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

On Avaaz

I’ve been wavering about writing this post for months. On the one hand, I don’t find it productive to tear down other organizations when their motives seem to be benevolent. On the other, well, I can’t keep quiet anymore.

A few weeks, Mohammad Radwan–who briefly worked for Avaaz–wrote a blog post in response to their campaigning against BDS. That petition appears to have been taken down, so I can’t comment as I would like to, but I find it extremely problematic that Avaaz would consider a campaign against a nonviolent boycott to be a human rights issue. More recently, The New Republic questioned Avaaz’s role in Syria, noting that prominent Syrian activists such as Rami Jarrah are “livid” at Avaaz taking credit for things they may not have done. There are other issues raised in the piece as well, and I highly recommend a read of it.

My own distrust of the organization, however, is based on four distinct issues, mostly related to Syria. I hope that readers will correct me if wrong, or contribute if I come up short.

Avaaz is naive about Syria

Avaaz’s primary purpose is as an “online campaigning community for change.” With this in mind, I–unlike Radwan–don’t really have a problem with their choice of campaigns (though my point stands that a boycott of Israeli products is not a human rights crisis). That said, over the past year, I believe that Avaaz has seriously overreached beyond both its mission and its abilities, particularly in Syria. As Guardian writer Julian Borger put it: “Amid the bloodshed of Syria, the organisation’s commitment is less likely to be queried. The question its critics are raising now is whether a group that started out in the high-tech safety of the internet has found itself out of its depth in a brutal conflict in the real world.” (A separate Borger piece directly addresses Avaaz co-founder Ricken Patel about such allegations, but Patel skirts the question).

What I know is this: For a year or more, Avaaz has been funneling satellite phones into Syria (prior to that they were doing so in Yemen, and possibly Libya). From my point of view, there are numerous problems with this: First, they are an online campaigning organization with no real Syrian contacts, at least in the beginning (more on this later). Second, satellite phones are scary and insecure. That alone isn’t a reason not to distribute them–activists make decisions of need over security all the time–but it is certainly reason to be cautious when doing so…and yet, from all accounts (and I’ve spoken with numerous Syrian opposition activists about this), Avaaz apparently did not supply security training with their satphones. They did not explain to Syrian recipients that using one can easily expose your location. They did not take precautions, and that may have gotten people killed.

They’ve also sponsored petitions calling for EU sanctions on Syria (this, despite the fact that Syrian opposition groups are not universally in support of sanctions).

Of course, they have a country director for Syria, so they’re not going in blind…or are they?

Who is Wissam Tarif?

For a year or more, Wissam Tarif has served as Avaaz’s country director* for Syria. His activities, in addition to satphone distribution, include tallying death tolls, and his reports on those counts include his email address and a note to contact him with questions about methodology. I have done so, politely and approximately five times, but have never received a response. Neither have other people I’ve spoken to.

But alas, poor inbox management alone is not a solid reason to question Tarif. Rather, I’d prefer to question who he is.

In March 2011, Tarif started giving interviews to media outlets, and was often quoted as being a “Syrian activist,” though an April 2011 Atlantic piece clarified that he was actually Lebanese, not Syrian. Nonetheless, in one CNN interview, he was quoted as saying: “We have been living in this country for 50 years under emergency law. This element of fear has to be broken.” The “we”–to me, anyway–implies that Tarif was identifying as Syrian. Interestingly, in that same interview, Tarif was quoted as saying: “People–the Syrian people who are living in exile, Syrian people who are living abroad, who are calling Arab networks, TVs and hiding their names and disguising their voices should stop it now.” Pretty bad advice, considering recent events.

In the Borger article in which Patel is interviewed, Tarif is referred to as “a highly respected Syrian pro-democracy leader who is widely consulted by journalists and senior western diplomats,” another uncorrected misidentification.

Tarif’s Wikipedia page is of little help. At best, it’s a vanity page (“Appreciated for his in-depth political and strategic published analyses, he has made a reputation not only among the diplomatic and political communities in Lebanon and Syria, but amongst intellectuals, communicators and thinkers”), evidently written by a PR expert or serious fan.

Why would a 37-year-old Lebanese man pass himself off as Syrian for the purpose of taking down the Assad regime? (or, at the very least, not correct those journalists who mis-identify him) I don’t want to get all conspiracy-theory on this (as some have done) or mislead you about my feelings on the Syrian opposition (I support the on-the-ground opposition wholeheartedly). But I think, amid criticism about Avaaz’s work from some of my ardently anti-Assad Syrian friends, it is a question worth asking.

First, that criticism: One friend calls them “sloppy” on sourcing their statistics, stating that their claims are rarely backed up with evidence from on-the-ground Syrian groups. Another tells me that their numbers appear to be guesswork**, ignoring the more methodologically sound numbers provided by the LCCs and other groups. Yet another contact–who was privy to a conversation between an Avaaz staffer and a donor–tells me that he overheard a conversation in which the Avaaz staffer claimed that they see a death certificate for each Syrian reported dead…that is simply impossible.

My own frustration is in Tarif’s refusal to answer my emails asking about their methodology, despite this tagline on most of his reports: “For further information about how all our figures were recorded, please contact Wissam Tarif on +961 71 688 549 or wissam@avaaz.org.” (And no, I haven’t phoned him. That’s weird).

In respect to questions about Tarif’s Syrian identity, another contact quite fairly reminds me that Syrian and Lebanese heritage often overlap, “so its like a sin of omission to say ‘we’” but nonetheless agrees that Tarif passively allowing the media to portray him as Syrian is “fucked.” Indeed, as yet another Syrian friend notes, “Every time an opposition group allows any room for conspiracy theorizing, it’s damaging to us.” Indeed, particularly given that one of the biggest accusations coming from the pro-regime side is in respect to “foreign involvement.”

Thus – Tarif’s motivations may be wholly pure, and I am not in a position to question them (especially when he won’t answer my damn emails). Nonetheless, it is naive of Avaaz to employ someone as country director who is not Syrian and not trusted by segments of the Syrian opposition.

Avaaz is a lobbying organization

Apart from Syria, I have two remaining criticisms about Avaaz. The first is this: They are not a 501(c)(3) (non-profit) organization, rather, they are a 501(c)(4), the classification of organization that can lobby, engage in political campaigns, and don’t have to name their major donors. To put this in perspective, the 501(c)(4) designation applies to PACs, leading Stephen Colbert to label 501(c)(4)s “spooky PACs.”

That said, they are required to report their financials, and–judging by their most recent 990 form from 2010–those financials seem fairly reasonable for a charitable organization in New York City. $500K for salaries (in 2010), $180K for fundraising expenses. $3 million for “other expenses” (“other” in this case is anything but grants paid to US recipients, salaries, benefits, and fundraising). Of that $3 million: $1.7 million went to grants paid to non-US orgs (reasonable). $600K went to other salaries (totally reasonable). $400K on IT (very, very high. my organization spent $14K on IT that same year). $260K to advertising (not totally unreasonable, but a little high for an org that regularly claims grassroots expansion). $180K for travel (this could be high, or not; if it’s for the four main employees, that’s $45K a year each, high. If it applies to others, it could be reasonable; by contrast, my 30-something person organization spent $28K on travel that same year, total).

To their credit, they recently updated their About page to increase transparency (a few months back, there was no reference to their financial status, for example).

Avaaz does not understand technology

This one’s a two-parter. Remember that $400K Avaaz spent on IT in 2010? In 2008 (the closest year available) they spent $179K (insofar as those are reasonable numbers–and I don’t think they are–that is a reasonable increase). And yet, that expense was not enough to prevent a security breach: In 2007, they experienced a security breach that Patel described as “a small crack in our security that had allowed a hacker using a packet sniffer to detect email addresses containing the word ‘avaaz’” and that compromised member (read: donor) data, leading to those users being spammed.

Look, shit happens, but they did not at the time apologize publicly for the breach. One can only assume that they called those whose accounts were compromised, but a transparent, public explanation goes a long, long way toward ensuring confidence amongst your member base.

And then, in December 2011, it happened again, and again no public recognition, explanation, apology (I learned about it from a donor/member who did receive an apology call). And again, the wrong way to handle a breach.

But more recently something really set me off: In early May, Avaaz was the victim of a massive distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack that they claimed lasted for 36 hours but notably did not take their site down. I don’t doubt either claim.

The normative response to such a large attack varies. If the attack was affecting the site’s speed, or if their host was threatening to take down the site due to the increased traffic, then throwing money at the problem (to the web host, that is) might be the correct response. If neither were true, however, then the correct response would be to take a step back, do nothing in the meantime, then afterward perhaps audit their security.

The degree to which Avaaz prepared for a potential attack is also worth questioning. With a $400K IT budget, one would hope that they had prepped for an attack, with proper mirrors set up (TechWeek Europe has suggested the same). And with such a large budget, one would think they wouldn’t require emergency funds from their members to deal with it.

But what Avaaz did instead was just that: immediately send their members a message asking for donations. In typical Avaaz fashion, the message was URGENT! and vague:

Right now, the Avaaz website is under massive attack. An expert is telling us that an attack this large is likely coming from a government or large corporation, with massive, simultaneous and sophisticated assaults from across the world to take down our site.

That message did not inspire confidence in some of Avaaz’s members, and a long email thread on the (public) Liberationtech email list ensued. Some questioned the existence of the attack altogether, while others criticized Avaaz’s response, with one calling it a “crass fundraising ploy.” I will not speculate on the former, but I think the latter is very fair.

Eventually, someone from Avaaz responded to the thread and the many questions being asked about the attack, stating: “…we have specific interests in not disclosing information — such as that which may make another attack more likely/difficult to defend against.” He also stated that he felt it was appropriate to ask for funds in response.

I don’t, but ultimately that’s a matter of aesthetics–after all, Avaaz’s members can choose whether or not to donate. What I find utterly inappropriate is their arrogance and lack of transparency in the face of criticism from Libtech, which counts among its subscriber/participants much of the core tech/human rights community. In a later email, Patel explained the attack in more detail (to his credit), noting that they had reached out to Arbor Networks, among others, to understand the attack. But he also added: “So while I am told that you have norms about collaboration and engagement among you, I regret that we can’t follow them. Hope you’ll forgive us and judge us by the quality of our work over time.”

As I said before, people can choose whether or not to donate to Avaaz. I choose not to: I don’t want my information accessible to a cadre of former government folks (not that it isn’t anyway), nor do I think it’s very smart of global members to contribute to what must now be the world’s most impressive (and, judging by their history, insecure) database of activists, as a friend in Guatemala recently pointed out.

But as a supposed “member of the community” (as Jake Appelbaum phrased it in a [non-critical] response to Libtech), Avaaz doesn’t really play well with others. They lack transparency. Their campaigners feign openness but then don’t respond to emails. They’re arrogant in their responses. And they’re taking thousands upon thousands of dollars for what, in most cases, is a clicktivism site and in other cases could be putting lives in danger. No thanks.

*Not sure that’s his actual job title, apologies if incorrect.
**Note: I’ve written a paper critiquing media reporting on Syrian death tolls. It is in draft form and not-yet-published but I am happy to privately share it upon request.

25 Comments

  1. In 2008, Avaaz (allegedly) launched a campain in Israel and Gaza to bring ceasefire. They claim they posted billboards, etc. I live in Israel, and I saw no sign of these billbards. Nobody I know was even aware of this campaign. A week after they started, a ceasefire deal was finally reached. Sometime later Avaaz members received an email recounting their recent successes, and among them was a boast that a week after they started their campaign, we had ceasefire.

    I’m a member of Avaaz. I never asked to be – I simply became one after signing one of their petitions. Maybe I answered “yes” somewhere, I don’t remember. Anyway, they have many campaigns, which are all described in apocalyptic language. In short, they are quite full of themselves.

    Most of their causes seem worthy, but I do not trust them. I sign only petitions on issues I’m familiar with, and only when I think it can do good. I certainly don’t give them any money.

    It’s good that groups like Avaaz are around, but only if you use them as a tool to advance the causes you believe in. Beware of becoming their tool.

  2. Thank you for this! I have been on their listservs and have appreciated their campaigns for Palestine and other issues (I was not aware of their stance against BDS). I have considered donating, but always felt I wanted to know more before making that step. Thank you!!!!

    • I really don’t think that they are anti-BDS. I’ve only seen a claim to that effect, but no evidence. so, perhaps, on that at least, we should not jump to conclusions. I’ve posted elsewehere in this comment section about what I believe the source of this claim is.

  3. You’ve seen this, right? Tarif lived in Syria from 2002-2008, was deported to Lebanon. His twitter feed has referred to Lebanon, Lebanese gov’t, etc. as “us” often enough, IIRC. http://www.theatlanticwire.com/global/2011/04/wissam-tarif-reporting-syria-playing-russian-roulette/36980/

    The Wikipedia page is also quite clear that he’s Lebanese, and Anderson Cooper aside, many/most press reports describe him “Lebanon-based.” Not that he shouldn’t reply to email, and not that the dangers of sat. phones, lack of security training, & failure to respond to legit questions re: same aren’t troubling.

    • Yes, I’ve seen that. “Lebanon-based” is meaningless – lots of Syrian dissidents are Lebanon-based. It is imperative, in my view, that he be utterly clear about his nationality. Whether or not it *actually* matters is one thing, the perception and impact on Syrians opposition is another.

  4. I was very impressed with this writing: scrupulously careful to be objective and factually cautious, and it evidenced the kind of humility that reinforces my instinct to trust the author.

  5. Bravo – I don’t think there’s enough questioning of organizations. I myself don’t have issues with lobbying organizations and my feelings on Aavaz are still to be decided but I do have one quick question (not meant to antagonize, believe me) – why haven’t you called Wissam Tarif?

    If you’ve been thinking about writing this piece for so long and if emails have gone unanswered, why isn’t a phone call in order? True, it is egregious to ignore that many emails but I know from experience (on both ends of customer service) that it is much harder to ignore a phone call.

    While I totally agree that if you solicit emails, you have a responsibility to reply, but I also think that if the method you are trying isn’t working and there are other methods available, you should use those, too.

    Thanks again for a well thought piece!

    • I haven’t called because I don’t think I should have to. Call it laziness, perhaps, but I don’t think calling will change anything. I don’t think he’ll magically explain his way out of Avaaz’s lies to donors about their methodology in Syria.

      • Indeed, a well-written piece. Though I think “I don’t think he’ll magically explain his way out” is rather an assumption. I’d even call it the only noticeable flaw in your analysis, and probably recognizing it as such would be a wiser statement than assuming there would be no postive result if you tried. Questioning who this Tarif is crucial. I share your concern as I come from a country, where there also was a certain problem of people against the government and this case was taken to Avaaz (not by me). There were several semi-forgotten clown oppositioners who tried to take advantage of the situation and earn some publicity and supporters (not on Avaaz, though. It was rather done through the one-way traditional media in a couple of other countries). As I was abroad, you could only imagine the amount of stress that had come upon us – the citizens abroad, that were lacking information. There were a couple of active people back in our country trying to update all those willing to hear about it. And though they did a great job in communicating, as it turned out in such cases poor inbox management is not unheard of. In fact very often we’d have to wait long before hearing from them on issues much more important at the moment than “what is your methodology of calculation” and as it turned out those days the best way to get in contact was to make a phone call, even though that was also a more dangerous way for those who communicated from the country.

      • Thanks for this interesting reading. I’ve signed Avaaz petitions and even given them money, this was before they became really big – they claim now 20 million members. I recently started to wonder about their methods as they have never replied my emails -except one, and very, very vaguely.
        Shared in FB and Twitter.

  6. I’m not sure why if you’re inclined to write a large article you can’t pick up the phone… Should have been your first port of call as I see it.

    • Fair enough, but let’s say I did call, and did get through. I doubt Tarif is going to confess to Avaaz lying about their methodology.

  7. Every time one of Avaaz’s petitions plops into my email box I groan. Signing petitions seems a fundamentally outdated and pointless thing these days, and seems mainly to assuage the consciences of those who never get off the sofa but like to be upset about this or that wrongdoing. I was, until recently, under the impression that petitions was all they did, so I was pretty surprised to hear about the phones to Syria scenario.

    I had also assumed that they were 2 or 3 people in an office so I was surprised to learn they turn over $5m + a year.

    I’m sure they mean well but I’ve worked myself for many organisations that mean well and that doesn’t always equate to being effective at what they set out to do. I can’t quite work out what Avaaz’s raison d’etre is, and to be honest if you look at their website it all looks a bit Web 1.0. Also, its a mush of animal, environmental and political causes, and I can’t work out what they actually stand for.

    For example, why are they running a petition to get rid of Jeremy Hunt? My views on Jeremy Hunt are unprintable but he is a British cabinet minister and if he has been caught doing wrong then it is the responsibility of the British Prime Minister to fire him, or the British judicial system to prosecute him. It’s not up to a bunch of petition signers in other countries to demand the resignation of one of our cabinet ministers. Besides, there are dozens of ways British citizens can make their views on Mr Hunt known to the government, and I am sure they are doing so. Popular opinion is that he is toast anyway, sooner or later. Why are they wasting time on this?

    I can’t help feeling that with Avaaz’s petitions there’s an element of promoting an organisation by jumping onto a popular source of outrage, as with the Kony film. Although probably not to such a breath-taking degree.

    And if they are such a user-supported organisation, why doesn’t somebody just go round and fix their security issues for free? It seems a weird thing to fundraise for. Perhaps they are just embarrassed to admit they lost their database to some malware, or something like that.

  8. Great article Jillian and I’m happy to see someone articulating the heebie jeebies many feel in reaction to Avaaz and the like. We’re seeing this more and more where organisations and individuals seem to get in over their head, tackling highly complex issues. It’s important that we pose questions about legitimacy. We included a post (“We’re coming, we have parachutes! Caught between global compassion and local action”) touching on this problem in our recent information-activism project at Tactical Tech: http://informationactivism.org/mobilising_for_action#were-coming-we-have-parachutes-caught-between-global-compassion-and-local-action.

  9. This is an excellent, thoughtful and thought provoking article – thanks Jillian

  10. Thanks for the in-depth look at this. When an organisation appears to be fighting for worthwhile causes, it takes a long time to wake up and question it (well, it took me a long time anyway!) Glad to see I’m not the only one with doubts about Avaaz.

  11. On syria..AVAAZ is not just ignorant..they are part of the Humanitaian War imperial system…and the syria they are attacking is a fabrication: lets see what peple IN syria have to say. IS the syrian govt attacking syrian people? if it is why do the syrian people support their govt and army:

    1. who do the syrian people support? the govt or the insurgents/FSA?

    http://lizzie-phelan.blogspot.com.au/2012/04/citizens-of-homs-if-army-leaves-homs-we.html
    http://lizzie-phelan.blogspot.com.au/2012/04/students-from-homs-thank-syrian.html
    rally at Alleppo university:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSjGLhTyF9o
    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=353022241419609&set=a.166558333399335.59751.165918890129946&type=3&theater

    2. who did the killing in HOMS?
    it helps to know who the dead in HOMS were: they were assad loyalists…one pro-assad man in parliament had something like 17 relatives massacred in HOMS
    http://www.syrianews.cc/marat-musin-anna-news-syria-report-houla-707.html

    its unusual for terrorists to kill and lie as to who did it…this was no ordinary killing it was planned to put the blame on Assad

    3. russian journalist Anhar Koncheva(who is i syria) has this to say:
    russian journalist Anha Kochneva in syria: ‘There are a lot of soldiers of fortune among the bandits. They are Chechens, Romanians, French, Libyans, and Afghans. Moreover, there was a very funny accident with Afghan soldiers. A few Afghans were caught and asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ They replied, ‘We were told that we came to Israel, and at night we are shooting at Israeli buses. We are fighting with the enemy to liberate Palestine.’ It might be funny, but it is true. The guys were really surprised, ‘Are we in Syria? We thought we were in Israel!’
    http://gbtimes.com/third-angle/syria/syria/eyewitness-account-media-lies-about-syria

    so dont be fooled..AVAAZ is aware of all this…yet the still lie about who is killing whom in syria

  12. I turned against Avaaz recently, when my doubt about them reached critical mass. Never donated, but did sign some of their petitions. But now I don’t trust them. I suspect an organisation that was always, or that has been turned into, an unadmitted internet instrument of support for US foreign policy. It may be that some or all of their managers fail to realise this. But that seems to be the situation. Being opposed to the Assad regime’s grip on Syria shouldn’t equate to supporting in any way the thoroughly criminal USukisnato aims for the country. Avaaz seems to be doing this, and therefore is radioactive from here on, in my reckoning.

  13. I think the goal of such a spam machine is simply to collect people and money later sell services in the context of US election campaign. It is actually quite cheap to invest in and sustain a serial mass organisation platform over the internet. They fetch causes in an opportunistic manner to grow their base.

    Their ACTA petition was also overstated but it generated a tsunami of interest. Activists on the ground are in a love-hate relationship with this mass awareness propaganda. It is bad for democracy because it quickly gets too powerful. Whether Kony2012 or Avaaz, this frightens me. When you have a “we do good causes” image and fight the “bad boys” you immunize yourself from criticism. Traditional acticism is different. Take EFF. You could disagree with EFF. They have causes which bear their trademark. They have deep analysis and insights and try to communicate it to their supporters. They follow issues. They have to win over supporters, educate and evangelize. They are not a mass-bully machine against the bad boys.

    Even in the case of the Assad regime, you may as well take the other side like the Russians do, perceive it as a foreign supplied uprising, where the regime has the right to crack down on it or in simple realpolitique terms prefer pressure for reform over a violent civil war that puts other evil people in power who would then slaughter the “traitors”. Now, in the fog of war, attached to friends who suffer under the repression, you may feel it inappropriate but think of the Shah regime in Persia and compare it to Iran today. Imagine a spam machine as Avvaz to run the anti-Shah campaign in 1979. I assume the Shah was far worse than Assad. Any change of government in an old dictatorship should better be a transition. Where is the Juan Carlos of Syria?

  14. The problem with BDS is, well… http://i48.tinypic.com/21j8xs1.gif -> http://i49.tinypic.com/2ihm420.jpg – The often quoted passage of Karl Marx’ The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon comes to mind (“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”). And then there is this guy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5hY-gffV0M

  15. Dealing with avaaz has been surprisingly difficult and I’ve been looking for comments about the organization so finding your article was great. Creating a petition is easy, getting any information, updates, answer to questions is impossible. They just don’t answer.
    I wanted my petition to be in French as well as English. Avaaz has many petitions on their website in multiple languages, all linked, with only one total signature count. I asked how to make this happen for my petition, I didn’t get an answer
    Then, I tried to update my petition to make it bilingual. Avaaz says it might a day or two to review updates before they appear, bu the updates never took effect.

  16. I think the charge that Avaaz campaigned against BDS needs to be more thoroughly researched. I’ve done a bit of research and couldn’t come up with anything indicating that they are anti-BDS. I saw a petition, created by an Avaaz member, directed at Avaaz calling for them to STOP supporting BDS,( https://secure.avaaz.org/en/petition/AVAAZ_Stop_Supporting_the_BDS/?pv=1) and I wonder if this is not the source of that particular claim. on the other hand, I’ve seen quite a few Avaaz petitions which indicate their support for the expulsion of Israeli diplomats, against the settler movement, against G4S and other Israeli companies ( https://secure.avaaz.org/en/israel_palestine_this_is_how_it_ends_loc/), some of which have been brought to my attention by the BDS movement , so I really am quite intrigued by this question.

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