Don’t want to see “Breaking Bad” end? Sign an online petition! Think schools should serve better food? Sign an online petition! Want to make sure that adorable baby panda has a stuffed animal to cuddle? Sign an online petition!
Over the last few months, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of online petitions. Whether it’s a facebook status update, a tweet, or an email from one of the million newsletters that spam your inbox, online petitions are everywhere. There is an online petition for anything you could ever remotely care about. While some of these petitions are inconsequential, such as a petition to not cancel your favorite TV show, others deal with some of the most serious and controversial topics our society must deal with, such as releasing someone from death row. As petition after petition is signed, you start to wonder if they actually work.
Upon further research, and much to the amusement of my lawyerly self, the answer seems to be “it depends”. A successful online petition has to hit many elements in order for there to be any return on the effort. While critics completely dismiss the effectiveness of online petitions as “slacktivism”, supporters cite petitions that have worked in the past and suggest that doing something as small as filling out your information to show support is better than doing nothing.
In order for an online petition to produce the desired results there are four steps, as laid out by Change.org:
1. The Ask is compelling and achievable;
2. The petition is delivered directly to the target;
3. Social media tools are used to get the word out and recruit supporters; and
4. The online petition is followed up by offline action. While this steps seem simple enough, each of these steps can be difficult to achieve.
Critics of online petitions say that slacktivism leads to complacency and does little to encourage people to actually get out and give offline support. The fear with online petitions is that many people think just signing is enough; once you’ve filled out your name and email address you’re done. Critics also cite to the fact that many of these petitions don’t ever make it to the right people. While petition creators have all the right intentions when they initiate a petition, their rallying cries can get lost in all the white noise.
Supporters cite past successes, such as the petition to get Bank of America to drop its $5 debit card fees, as evidence that online petitions do make a difference. The Bank of America petition received over 300,000 signatures and promptly reversed it $5 debit card charge policy. Another example is the petition of a high school student, Austin Fisher. He was not being allowed to graduate because he had missed two more days than the allocated amount because he was taking care of his mother who had cancer. A petition to “Let Fisher Walk” was created, signed, and successful.
In addition, studies have shown that so called ‘slacktivists’ are two times more likely to engage in an issue than those who are not engaged online. Online awareness has the power to raise money and support from people that would have otherwise not heard about the cause. The argument is that most people cannot or will not give their time to a cause, but their monetary donations allow others to do the work to help a cause.
The takeaway: Online petitions and their success depends on how you want to view success. If raising awareness is the mission, then online petitions are usually always a winning formula. But if immediate change at high levels and offline action are the measure of success, you may often find yourself disappointed. What do you think about online petitions? Do they work? Are they worth it? Have you ever signed one?
- We the Coders: Open-Sourcing We the People, the White House’s Online Petitions System (whitehouse.gov)
- Foursquare and Starbucks Get In On Virtual Charity (article-3.com)
- Are Facebook “Likes” first Amendment Free Speech? (article-3.com)