How many times in recent weeks have you as a student or community member added your name to the latest online petition? Change.org, one of the larger online sites for generating “e-petitions,” has a dizzying array of topics subject to online activism: Apple’s labor practices in China, MPAA movie ratings, North Korean refugees and more. These online petitions, according to a University of Westminster study, are being generated at far greater rates than their non-online predecessors. This deluge of online petitions leads us to ask the question: How effective is this new form of digital activism?
Change.org certainly believes in the efficacy of online petitions: It cites a number of examples of petitions that have arguably led to companies and governments amending policies. For instance, after an online petition drive at Change.org and a mass exodus of customers, Bank of America decided not to implement a new $5 per month banking fee. Verizon similarly dropped a proposed $2 online payment fee after highly negative Internet coverage and 130,000 Change.org signatures.
But how critical were the online petitions in achieving these ends? In both of the above examples – as with many of the other Change.org examples – the online petition was merely one component of public disapproval. Furthermore, most of the successful petitions ultimately concern corporate decisions or high-profile criminal cases while more substantial issues generally require more institutional support to effect change. For instance, a wildly popular citizen-initiated petition at Whitehouse.gov that called for marijuana legalization was unsuccessful in producing meaningful discourse in government over reform of controlled substances laws.
Many believe that online petitions have greatly risen in popularity because the strategy allows the signatories to “feel good” because they have “done something,” without necessarily having accomplished anything substantive. This phenomenon, termed “slacktivism,” could be counterproductive: Citizens who may have otherwise engaged in effective advocacy, such as writing their representatives or protesting, might instead feel content signing online petitions without realizing that each signature has a minimal effect on the policymaking process.
In addition to doubts about the efficacy of online petitions, the Editorial Board questions whether effective online petitions are even desirable. For instance, one oft-cited instance of an effective online petition is the Road Tax petition in the United Kingdom, calling for the scrapping of a pay-as-you-drive tax. In the span of a few months in 2006 and 2007, the Road Tax petition managed to accumulate more than 1.8 million signatures in a nation of just 60 million; the British government was, according to the Westminster study, subsequently forced to scrap its road tax plans that “many considered an unpopular but necessary path to safeguard the environment.” When government steps in to make difficult decisions – whether unpopular tax hikes aimed at protecting the environment or research for diseases that have few victims – the ease and swiftness with which online petitions can garner the appearance of massive public opposition to a measure may kill legislation aimed at the long-term, best interests of constituents.
The Internet undoubtedly presents exciting new opportunities for citizens to become involved in the policymaking process and to present their concerns directly to corporations and governments. However, given that the overall efficacy of such petitions has not been convincingly shown, the Editorial Board suggests to readers that they do more than sign a petition if they want to bring about change.