This blog is dedicated to the memory of David Weintraub, who took on insidious astroturfers and won.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Are online petitions effective for change?

                                       We Charge Genocide Petition (1951)

Online petitions have been around a while. A quick internet search will come up with many different page hits. What is the point of them and can they effect real change?

When confronted with human rights violations, animal cruelty or wanting any government law changed or passed, a petition can become a people's voice so to speak. If a group or individual sees something wrong in society, then anyone can write a petition in the belief of change, right?

I do like the idea that anyone can get involved with e-petitions. I get asked to sign many, but am also asked, why sign them? Good point, well why not?

Are they maybe a meaningless gimmick for some? Taking a mere few minutes to sign, is it merely the feel good factor of believing you've done something useful in life and then can forget about it?

The critics argue that those who sign heaps of online petitions are a bunch of do-gooders, armchair activists or as this article ponders, "Are you a Slacktivist? When activism comes too easy, is it effective?"

What about this one? Does it do more harm than good?

Indeed, in comparing different government initiative led petition sites, I do wonder how truly effective they are for change.

I have tried to follow many petitions and see how they supposedly worked out.

The petition site was set up in 2011 as a new way of petitioning the government online. Anyone within the USA can submit a petition on the "We the people" website, as long as it is not deemed offensive. That sounds great!

Currently, I see about 114 petitions on there, and a petitioner only has 30 days to gather enough signatures before it is closed, a pretty tall order. For a petition to get a response from the White House, it has to reach 100,000 signatures, or so they say.

Nextgov has provided some data on which petitions were responded to by the White House.

I wonder why this Snowden petition for pardon has yet to receive a reply despite reaching the required threshold.

Well ok, a few petitions have been successful on there at least:
  1. stop using monkeys in military training
  2. push patent reforms
  3. publish the recipe for White House ale (whoop!)

We have a similar government raised petition site here in the UK. HM Government e-petitions also demands a 100,000 person threshold. Typically it will allow petitions to run for one year, then parliament decides if it should be debated.

Neither of these governmental sites seem to publish any success stories. However after some digging, I located one highly publicised one that did indeed pass in parliament:

Hillsborough disaster cabinet papers to be released (Guardian article)

So governments do take notice of the big petitions then, but why is change so difficult and rare?

                 "People are always looking for a single magic bullet that will totally change everything.                       There is no single magic bullet." ~ Temple Grandin

If it's unclear there is much hard evidence of their effectiveness in promoting change, why bother with them at all?

A small team of researchers at Oxford University did just that with their analysis described in this article. It is apparently extremely difficult for a petition to succeed.

Therefore, for some online petitions to really work, it's going to take more than just gathering signatures. Garnering media involvement appears crucial. For a petition to go viral and hence gather enough signatures, it must be perceived as having a good chance to reach the threshold and make an impact.

I've wondered if an e-signature is even valid. Are we just wasting our time?

I only got one response from Greenpeace when asking that!

"We represent you whenever we take action in the Artic, or in the forests of Indonesia, or lobby politicians or corporations who threaten our environment with their decisions and practices, so we thank you for your continued support"-Emily

Thanks, Emily. I am reassured signatures are helping then?

        The Mike Brown Law petition asks for police to wear body cameras.

Was this petition superfluous? The momentum is building anyway for police activity to be videotaped. The US government seems compelled to respond because Ferguson and other police killings of unarmed Black men have been all over the news. There has been an extreme public outcry on police violence along with widespread protests in the streets. Petition, shmetition?

The following might be an easier example to see a cause and effect. This petition soon got into the news and social media with success; parents of a stage 4 cancer child were arrested because they wanted the best care which wasn't available in England.

Here was 16 year old Ethan Dallas handing in his petition in London. I do like this guy.

                                          Ashya King: Arrest warrant for parents to be withdrawn
                                          as CPS confirms they will face 'no further action' (link)
While this story seems to be one of the few and far between successes, if an e-petition merely raises awareness and public debate, is this a bad thing?

This Guardian article highlights how and its online petition formula has recently blossomed.

That's a pretty convincing argument e-petitions can and do create positive change. So let's not give up just yet on petitions. Let's keep an eye out for results. Imagine how useful a tool it might become to help abolish evils in this world.

Where do we start? Do you see this one working?

Okay, maybe that's not the best example.

I could go on and present many more examples, but the key issue in any petition is you have to hope it's going to work! I know. The question still remains: Is this fool's gold or are we onto something worthwhile?

Perhaps signing a petition is merely better than doing nothing at all. Hopefully at a minimum we are witnessing and participating in small seeds of change which will grow into meaningful social movement. It's something to reflect and act on. There's no point in simply spinning one's wheels, so we must do our homework.

I'll leave you with one highly influential petition site on the web. This link highlights Amnesty International's hard work in addressing human rights violations. I like them a lot.

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