Petitions are a way to make our voices heard. Whether it’s campaigning for social and political change, or to raise awareness of local issues, petitions show support for a specific idea.
Online petitions are digital campaigns that are easily shareable, can gain significant momentum, and have the potential for long-lasting impact. However, appearances can be deceiving, and its not always clear what the outcome of a digital petition is.
Which makes many people wonder, how do online petitions work, and are they really effective?
What Is an Online Petition?
Historians believe that the earliest petitions originated in Ancient Egypt. The slave workers purportedly campaigned for better working conditions while building the famed pyramids. The passage of time hasn’t changed the ultimate goal of a petition to lobby an authority—whether governmental or commercial—to enact a change or halt one.
Analog petitions were a common sight in the 1980s and 1990s, with petitioners waiting in crowded areas hoping to convince passers-by to support their cause. There are two significant challenges with this approach, though. The first is the time that any single person has to invest in the petition. It can be challenging to convince enough people to sign the petition, as not everyone will be sympathetic to its goal.
Online petitions overcome both those hurdles. Petition websites help you set up a digital campaign in a matter of minutes. Likewise, social networks and messaging apps mean that the petition can spread far further than would otherwise have been possible. This is beneficial as you then have a global audience for your campaign.
Additionally, the much-maligned echo chambers mean that your friends and followers are likely to have similar interests. Incidentally, this is one of the many reasons that you should consider a social media detox
If you have a grievance or request you think should be addressed, you can set up an online petition. There are many e-petition websites, although the most notable is Change.org. Additionally, many governments around the world have now introduced their own petition websites, allowing citizens to campaign directly, rather than through a third-party.
How Do Online Petitions Work?
To be successful, the online petition should have an actionable title or outcome. Generally, petitions that appeal to a sense of outrage perform better than those with a softer or more positive angle. That said, this isn’t unique to petitioning; most online content is based around anger and negativity. There are other negative effects of social media
Your campaign also needs an end date. The objective may require this, but making the petition time-sensitive can motivate people, too. Petition websites usually have a directory of all active petitions, but the key to getting signatures is through sharing your campaign on social media.
Facebook is the ideal platform for local issues, especially if you believe your friends will be interested in the cause. Twitter is often used to share social change campaigns or those requiring national attention.
Once someone clicks through to your petition and decides to sign, they’ll likely need to sign in with their account to add their support. This is done to prevent spam, fraudulent signatures, and multiple signings. At the very least, most sites require email confirmation for this reason. Once you’ve reached your target number of supporters, your petition can be presented for discussion.
While many campaigns are well-intentioned, they compete will other online media for attention. As most gain traction through social media, the notability of your petition is dependent on how many people share it and the impact of their networks. The expectations for digital petitions are also different. In the past, obtaining 100 signatures would have seemed significant.
However, online campaigns have a potentially global audience.
The Impact of Digital Petitions
For your petition to make an impact, it’ll usually need many hundreds of signatures. For example, official petitions on the UK government’s website must reach 10,000 signatures before the authority responds to them. Despite obtaining such large levels of support, you may still find that your petition isn’t able to make a long-lasting impact.
In March 2019, a petition to halt the Brexit, the UK’s exit from the European Union, attracted over 2,000 signatures per minute. Ultimately, the petition gained over six million names, well over the 10,000 required for a response, accounting for almost 10 percent of the UK’s population. As a result, Revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU became the UK’s most signed petition.
Despite this, the outcome was not proportional to the success of the petition. The UK government responded, noting, “The government acknowledges the considerable number of people who have signed this petition. However, close to three-quarters of the electorate took part in the 2016 referendum, trusting that the result would be respected.”
Although this is a high-profile case, many people question the impact that digital petitions can have. Critics of the medium refer to them as a form of slacktivism—showing support for a cause to make yourself feel good without any notable action or effort. The petition’s target may also ignore the campaign as the signatories can remain anonymous and may be less invested in the cause.
Online Petition Privacy Concerns
It may not seem as though there are any personal downsides to signing an online petition. Showing your support could make all the difference to the outcome, for example. However, there is one issue that overshadows all digital activity; privacy.
While some petitions are on uncontroversial matters, like campaigning against a store closure, the petitions we sign often reflect our beliefs and political leanings. Political preference is a personal matter—some people are happy to share their views, while others prefer to keep them private.
The petition websites all gather data on you, your browsing habits, and the petitions you sign. The largest site, Change.org, has repeatedly faced criticism for its data processing and advertising practices. Of course, you may not have a particular issue with the company identifying your political and social leanings. However, the 2016 US Presidential Elections showed the influence that digital data could have on the outcome.
Much of the internet was entangled in an elaborate disinformation campaign. Cambridge Analytica, a third-party developer on Facebook harvested granular data from the social network and used it to affect the outcome of the election. It’s not the only time your Facebook data influenced elections
either. Ultimately, you need to be able to trust the petition website with this sensitive data.
Alternatives like 38degrees have begun to emerge with more transparent practices. That said, the self-described progressive organization is optimized for left-leaning social campaigns. As a result, those on the political right accuse them of bias and therefore don’t accept the petitions.
Do Online Petitions Matter?
The internet has changed many aspects of society. We can connect with others around the world, and make connections and friendships with like-minded people, without geographical restrictions. The same factors influence online petitions, too. These campaigns can be far more successful than their analog, paper-based counterparts.
That doesn’t mean that they have more influence, though. However, online petitions are only one part of a successful campaign. They help raise awareness of an issue, so even if there is no immediate direct outcome, digital petitions still have benefits.
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