Are you swamped with online petitions? I am.
Through email, Facebook and other social media, it seems like I’m constantly being asked to click through and add my “signature” to one thing or another. So when I got one this morning on WhatsApp, and a friend asked if it was worth signing, I leapt into the fray.
(This one was about a building project planned near the old Jewish cemetery in Vilnius, Lithuania. So far, it has 2,712 supporters, so it’s fairly big as these things go.)
Another friend said it sure was, saying basically (I’ve paraphrased since I don’t have her permission):
…it’s up to us to speak up or stay silent. Signing the petition takes less than a minute; we should pray, too; who knows?
Now, because this was first thing in the morning or because I was feeling cranky or because I have just gotten too many of these things, I added my 2 cents’ worth:
I believe the opposite: I don't think petitions help; or rather, I don't think online petitions help. An actual piece of paper may still have some weight. Yes, I believe we need to share and publicize things that are happening. But most people tune out - and, I believe, with good reason - when they see an online petition. They may actually undermine the credibility of good causes. 'Nuff said.
Another person in the group – a researcher, of course! – asked if there was any research on this, so I poked around for a few minutes. There is some, but it’s mostly about how petitions spread through social media and not on their effectiveness when it comes to policy.
So am I right? Should we avoid online petitions?
The short answer, is that we're all right; because it depends how you define "success." Exactly the kind of answer I don’t like, but there it is. If by “success” you mean publicizing a cause, then they can be fairly successful. If by “success” you mean policy change, then they are generally seen as fairly unsuccessful.
Here’s one response, for example:
"E-petitions... are a low-bar participatory act, [but] they are also generally perceived to have little or no impact and this raises questions over why people still choose to participate. The broader context for this is ongoing debates about what some people see as broadly pointless ‘slacktivism’ but which others suggest is missing the point about the role and function of E-petitions, and related activities. The analysis finds that petitioners had a broad definition of success, not specifically focused on policy change, and this helped to rationalize action." (Wright, 2016)
Based on what I’ve read, I’m not convinced. Even if success can be measured in a range of different ways, I’m still not joining in. Here’s why.
Six reasons I don’t sign e-petitions:
First: These are my reasons. Other people may have different reasons why they do (see this article, for example). I’m not trying to dictate what you should or shouldn’t do. See above: since success when it comes to online petitions can be measured in different ways, perhaps you really can be part of the cause’s success just by clicking and adding your name.
1) They are rude, invasive, biased, and spammy.
This one’s just a gut feeling. It’s not the fault of the well-meaning people passing them on, but I literally see too many of them in the course of a typical week to pay attention anymore. It’s like a fly constantly buzzing around my head. The fact that there are so many of them means that yours – no matter how important it is – is not going to get my attention. At least, not in a good way.
One reason I don’t like petitions is that they’re generally not well-written – there’s no balance there. They present ONE side of ONE issue and tell you why it’s a disaster. They don’t tell you the other side (there is always another side), they don’t give you context, and generally push you hard to agree with their views. Sure, your views may be right. But as a journalist, I still want to hear why not everybody agrees with you. If you’re telling me the other side is just nuts, well, you lose a ton of credibility there.
2) Policymakers don’t pay attention.
As Pushman, Bastos & Schmidt (2017) put it, “the outcomes of online petitions have no binding political consequences.” If political change is what you’re after – sorry, you won’t get it here. They cite another study that concludes, “few petitions systems demonstrably enable citizens to influence the outcome of parliamentary debate and/or affect policy development.”
If I feel like petitions are flies buzzing around my head, imagine how lawmakers feel. There’s just too much that urgently needs their attention. I don’t have studies and data for this, but honestly, if it was me in that hotseat, I’d definitely ignore the online petitions.
In the UK, at the official government petition site, any petition with more than 500 signatures is supposed to receive an official response, which is very nice in theory. In most cases, the “official response” was basically a form letter: “official replies were analyzed using a text-matching tool…over 40 official responses had a 95% or greater similarity to another official response” (Wright, 2016). I’m guessing Britain is pretty typical.
Also, petitions often aim too high, like directly at a president or prime minister or the head of whatever. This Vilnius petition is directed at the President of the Republic of Lithuania.
That top-level official is not usually the person making the decisions. Often, by the time it reaches that level of government, it would take major veto power for that person to overturn or enact whatever it is that the petition is protesting.
However, here again, it depends what your goals are. If you want to say, “The eyes of the world are on Lithuania,” maybe you should go for the top.
3) Policymakers shouldn’t pay attention.
This point mainly applies to petitions for local issues, like, I don’t know, better trash collection. People are signing the petition who aren’t necessarily stakeholders.
As with the previous point, the fact that I’m not local could be a plus if it’s an issue where we want them to know that the world is paying attention, such as with this Lithuanian petition which condemns a building project that could affect Jewish graves; maybe we want them to know that the Jews of the world are paying attention. But honestly, I think they realize that I’m not a Lithuanian, I don’t pay taxes in Lithuania, and I don’t vote in Lithuania.
(To be fair, the Vilnius poll was started by a native Lithuanian. But most people signing probably are not.)
However, even if the person starting the poll is a local resident, another reason policymakers shouldn’t, or at least, don’t pay attention is the obvious fact that it is entirely possible that many of the signatures collected are duplicates. Reputable third-party petition sites make this difficult – because you have to log in, not just type your name – but not impossible.
Governments, such as Germany and the UK, have set up their own polling sites where citizens can create polls and theoretically attract real political attention. These likely have a different dynamic as you may have to prove your citizenship in some way before they’ll let you vote. But the results seem mixed so far, and it doesn’t look like even these official online petitions will have the effect their users hope for. Such local polls also don’t allow international voting which – even though I dissed it above – may actually be useful in some way.
And as seen above, the response – when people receive a response – may be the opposite of encouraging. As one petition organizer put it, what he got was,
Pure ‘Yes (Prime) Minister’ textbook stuff. Machiavellian. Polite but arrogant. Detailed but deliberately entirely missing the point. Late. Needed reminding. Unsatisfactory. And did not follow up when questioned. In other words, a brick wall. [ … ] I was distressed that they did not bother to answer follow up questions – and would not engage in discussion … . (as cited in Wright, 2016)
4) The charge of “slacktivism”.
It’s easy to click and click and feel great that you’ve done your civic duty. (That’s why I love that my friend said to also pray. At least that’s something real.)
Here’s a sentence I found in a study that should surprise nobody, but is the very definition of slacktivism:
Those forms of political engagement that were most widely used by those surveyed were also those that take the least time. (Pushman et al., 2017).
These authors also found that “the low threshold of participation encourages, for better or worse, bursts of activity in which users contribute many signatures to a variety of causes in a single session” (Pushman et al., 2017). Indeed, their study underscores the fact that petitions signed by “serial activists” are those which are least likely to succeed. (Weirdly, I can’t see anywhere how the authors of this study have defined success.)
When there’s a cause I care about – which, sadly, is not every cause that comes through my inbox – then I try to do the opposite. I try to get involved. This isn’t because I’m a particularly good person, but because I believe (see above) that online “activism” is so worthless. You can’t just care about something online; you ought to care about it enough to do something that makes a change in your real life.
Can’t you do both? Yes. But I don’t, maybe because I’m judgmental; I don’t want to be seen as riding the slacktivism train, with all of its negative, half-baked ideologies. But if you want to, go ahead.
(I know, this contradicts what I just said. Remember: this is a list of why I don’t sign online petitions – not why you shouldn’t!)
5) The next steps aren’t clear.
There’s no standard “thing that happens next” following an online petition. One reason for that is that it’s not always clear what organization is sponsoring the petition. A few months ago when the Standing Rock Sioux were in the news, according to this helpful article by Gail Ablow, “there were as many as 10 petitions from 10 different organizations advocating for the tribe online.” Some of those may be legit organizations; some may just be folks who don’t really have a plan.
Another reason the follow-through part of a petition is that when you sign the petition, you figure you’re finished. Ablow writes that a petition is most likely to succeed when the petition is the beginning, not the end. When the person organizing the petition can then rope you in to help in some real-world kind of way.
Finally, sometimes, the petition isn’t particularly well-written and doesn’t even clarify what the petition writer WANTS to happen next. The Vilnius petition is pretty typical in this – with most of its text dedicated to why it shouldn’t happen and only about 16 words at the end dedicated to explaining what she sees as alternatives: “moving the convention center project to another site and preserving with respect the old Jewish cemetery.” A more effective petition might have listed a few potential sites, or offered ideas for building designs that would respect the old cemetery.
6) Online petitions can destroy your innocence.
Actually, there are two likely outcomes here.
One, you forget you signed, go on with your life, and never follow up to find out what happened. That’s probably what most people do, though I don’t have data on this.
Two, you remember you signed, you follow up, and when change does not ensure, your innocence is destroyed, or, as one study put it, “[you] become (more) disillusioned, cynical and demoralised, with the result that representative democracy (further) loses legitimacy'” (as cited in Wright, 2016).
Politics isn’t a wishing well, where you toss in your penny and magically get what you want. Is this what people hope for when they sign a petition? Maybe, or maybe they just want to have their voice heard.
Like I said above, I guess it all depends on how you define success. To me, this seems like a losing game. Sure, clicking through “only takes a minute,” but not really. It’s probably going to take more, at least, if you take the time to actually read and research the issue. Yeah, I’m that person.
And it will definitely take longer if you are the kind of person who’ll waste a morning sitting down to conduct meta-research on the effectiveness of online petitions in general.
Which is why, when online petitions find their way into my inbox, Facebook feed, WhatsApp groups… I just skim right on past. It may “only take a minute,” but there’s not enough time in my day, my week, my life, for all the minutes they demand.
Puschmann, C., Bastos, M. T., & Schmidt, J. (2017). Birds of a feather petition together? Characterizing e-petitioning through the lens of platform data. Information, Communication & Society, 20(2), 203-220. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2016.1162828
Wright, S. (2016). ‘Success’ and online political participation: The case of Downing Street E-petitions. Information, Communication & Society, 19(6), 843. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2015.1080285