The Problem with Online Petitions

Sign this to show your support, Stand with Joe bloggs, Be part of it, Support this cause, Stop this, Start that – we’ve all seen the ceaseless online petitions which vary greatly in their aims, professionalism and grace. Some are nearly as bad as the ‘type amen and share to send a prayer’ nonsense from social media, both which anger me greatly, but should I actually be wound up by them or furiously signing them as quick and plentiful as possible?

What are Online Petitions

Online petitions started as a simple way for users to digitally sign petitions, rather than in person, from clipboard carries or in local stores. The idea was that people would effectively be able to support the correct causes and sign against/for all items that directly affected them or causes they supported. They are provided (in the UK) by a multitude of businesses, charities, government and international subsidiaries.

The facilities, options, opinions of and benefits (to the user, signatory, owner and cases) differ greatly along with a disparity between demographic of users and opinions of the separate platforms.

Statistics

Most of the millions of e-petitions that get signed each year, then, fall on deaf ears and achieve very little. 6.4 million signatures per year just on the governments own petition.parliament.uk site2.

Indexed Pages Domain Links SEMRush FB Total3
avaaz.org 78700 326000 207838 57400
petition.parliament.uk 114000 324000 190332 22490
causes.com 674000 10500000 111063 10850000
thepetitionsite.com 395000 1480000 19818 110720
change.org 2450000 71900000 1552 1780000
home.38degrees.org.uk 7820 211000 324558 4600
thunderclap.it 326000 2100000 101991 9860

The Bad

Anyone can create a petition (just like the real world) however digitally it means any person without probity can create a petition for users to sign, without the intentions being vetted. Added to this there is a massive void between the professional and highly personal – the downside is a couple of glasses of wine and bad experience can result in a national campaign (some may see this as a benefit) but I feels more structured and wholesome campaign – with proper governance and planning – will always succeed if the cause is genuine.

This ease is great for this proper organisations and bodies who need the facilities and for fast moving situations like politics, but I’ve read far too many where the intentions are great but the poor application of the intentions have lessened the impact and possibly reduced the public perception of the campaign. While there are several petitions I’ve had to complain about after users have created them only from seeing incorrect spam on social media!  We’ve all seen the nonsense posts, but yes, some people believe them and then it’s probable more people will believe after they see a petition. While there are also several campaigns which are moot, the most recent is from May 20174, where the author is requesting Endometriosis is recognised under the Equality Act 2010 – now let me be clear, Endometriosis is a horrid thing to deal with and can cause many complications being both physically and mentally draining and i’m not lessening that at all – the Equality act covers Disability, which would include Endometriosis so this petition was not really needed. Although gathered 10,000 signatures some of who wouldn’t know about the condition, the post itself provides an incorrect view that the condition isn’t covered when it is, this sort of poor research leads to incorrect public views and it has the ability to damage a larger campaign.

The instant gratification achieved from online petitions in this way is immediately exhilarating, however the ease of signing means those signatures are not likely to want to do anymore to support the campaign. Clicking a button to help and actually getting off your ass are vastly different! This burnout after piqued interest on media – means support will dwindle after media saturation (which will vary by user and campaign) can this be a key to support for local issues? I feel only national issues should be utilised in online campaigns (even then only a small proportion of the nation will see the camping any platform not to mention media). – anything less than 10,000 signatures to me is not sufficient!

Dilution of issues due to duplicates and similar campaigning. A unified approach to issues is key, speaking from one page is necessary to fight an issue, multiple voices speaking from different aspects is not productive without an overall aim and management from a central aspect with an objective being key.

Desensitised to petitions as a whole, slacktivism (portmanteau of slacker and activism) is now rife, because of this there are far too many petitions being signed and shared, this means on average (being linked to several charities and connected to many charity focused people) I see at least 10 petitions a day show up on my social media, add that to the ones I get emailed to me by people who think i’d be interested in what they sign up for.  This causes me, and many others, to have petition blindness5.

Because of the above many organisations are now shying away and publically distancing themselves from online petitions 6– I’m make a difference between online petition and an organisations own online support request mechanism (osrm [p.s. I want this to be pronounced ‘awesome’]) 

Victories because of Petitions?

Its very doubtful7 From the table below we can see the number of petitions (only included is the government petition site) which shows more than 65% of the petitions are rejected, now some of these is becauase there already exists a similar petition, however it doesn’t take in number of signatures or profesionalism – so if you were to make a better worded, planned and executed petition the orgional would be kept and yours would be rejected. But have previous parliamentary petitions ever succeeded in implementing real change? I couldn’t find any evidence of it, the only changes were from campaigns which already had an organised following and subsidiary organisation pushing for the amendments it seems like a lot of the Petition sites take credit for already active campaigns. 

Total Petitions8 31,731
Rejected 20,781 65.4912%
Awaiting Response 12 0.0378%
Provided Response 475 1.4970%
Awaiting Debate 9 0.0284%
Debated in Parliament 56 0.1765%

“if you collect more than 100,000 signatures, your e-petition could be debated in the House of Commons” The above table shows just how many actually get debated, in TOTAL 56 have been debated since July 2015 when it started, this is less than 0.2%! Of the ten campaigns that garnered most signatures in 2016, four were denied a debate and none has so far succeeded in obtaining its intended outcome or implementing real change9. I agree with Emma Howard of The Guardian10 in that it creates false expectations although I would go further in saying it provides the people with a flawed beleif of impact.

The Good

Slacktivism is always seen as negative; lazy activism which no true desire to change society, an easy way to jump on the bandwagon or to agree easily without actually understanding what you’re agreeing with or against. However this can be of great benefit for those campaigns which are written effectively, it’s quite clear what you are signing and the aim of the campaign, with true motivation and belief slacktivism can, at its very least, provide a massive reach for ideas and issues without fiscal cost to a charity/cause.

The population of the UK is changing with each generation technology and social media become more integrated into their lives – I’m the last generation that didn’t have a mobile until very late teens, it’s now known how that will affect social issues in the future, but it is unlikely to reduce in numbers. People have embraced petitioning online whole heartly, some belive that it is a key method of expression be that Substantive or Protest11.

Some of the additional facilities provided by online petitions, when used properly, can aid a campaign no end, from automatically contacting your local MP/Councillor, to allowing you to email several friends and to share on other networks, all makes for ease and promotion.

Conclusion – Don’t stop!

No, I’m not asking for regulation or anything more formal, but maybe I think the petition sites using a method of promoting registered organisations or public figures (like mps) over the standard petitions, while also making certain petitions which have the same cause/aim being merged and those people being made to work together on the campaign.

Petitions only achievement is to promote a parliamentary debate – however the debate already exists in the public for the petition to be created (some smaller than others).

Parliament’s petitions are about demonstrating discontent and developing campaigns to address specific issues, as many other political tools are – Cristina Leston-Bandeira 12http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/what-is-the-point-of-petitions/13

Online petitions are the start, a tool and an easy marketing exercise for any campaign which needs support, they work when they’re done correctly. In the true slacktivist way, it’s just a click, you may as well!

Footnotes

  1. https://www.sharedcount.com/
  2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-19266497
  3. https://www.sharedcount.com/
  4. https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/183806?reveal_response=yes#response-threshold
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/24/e-petitions-often-worse-than-useless
  6. http://www.animalliberationfront.com/Practical/Shop–ToDo/Activism/InternetPetitions.htm
  7. http://www.newstatesman.com/science-tech/2017/01/do-online-petitions-actually-work-numbers-reveal-truth
  8. https://petition.parliament.uk/
  9. http://www.newstatesman.com/science-tech/2017/01/do-online-petitions-actually-work-numbers-reveal-truth
  10. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/24/e-petitions-often-worse-than-useless
  11. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/what-is-the-point-of-petitions/

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