Not another online petition! But here’s why you should think before deleting it


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It’s a lazy form of activism, but that doesn’t mean signing online petitions is useless.
from shutterstock.com

Sky Croeser, Curtin University

Online petitions are often seen as a form of “slacktivism” – small acts that don’t require much commitment and are more about helping us feel good than effective activism. But the impacts of online petitions can stretch beyond immediate results.

Whether they work to create legislative change, or just raise awareness of an issue, there’s some merit to signing them. Even if nothing happens immediately, petitions are one of many ways we can help build long-term change.

A history of petitions

Petitions have a long history in Western politics. They developed centuries ago as a way for people to have their voices heard in government or ask for legislative change. But they’ve also been seen as largely ineffective in this respect. One study found only three out of 2,589 petitions submitted to the Australian House of Representatives between 1999 and 2007 even received a ministerial response.

Before the end of the second world war, fewer than 16 petitions a year were presented to Australia’s House of Representatives. The new political landscape of the early 1970s saw that number leap into the thousands.

In the 2000s, the House received around 300 petitions per year, and even with online tools, it’s still nowhere near what it was in the 70s. According to the parliamentary website, an average of 121 petitions have been presented each year since 2008.




Read more:
Changing the world one online petition at a time: how social activism went mainstream


Although petitions rarely achieve direct change, they are an important part of the democratic process. Many governments have attempted to facilitate petitioning online. For example, the Australian parliamentary website helps citizens through the process of developing and submitting petitions. This is one way the internet has made creating and submitting petitions easier.

There are also independent sites that campaigners can use, such as Change.org and Avaaz. It can take under an hour to go from an idea to an online petition that’s ready to share on social media.

As well as petitions being a way for citizens to make requests of their governments, they are now used more broadly. Many petitions reach a global audience – they might call for change from companies, international institutions, or even society as a whole.

What makes for an effective petition?

The simplest way to gauge if a petition has been successful is to look at whether the requests made were granted. The front page of Change.org displays recent “victories”. These including a call to axe the so-called “tampon tax” (the GST on menstrual products) which states and territories agreed to remove come January 2019.

Change.org also boasts the petition for gender equality on cereal boxes as a victory, after Kelloggs sent a statement they would be updating their packaging in 2019 to include images of males and females. This petition only had 600 signatures, in comparison to the 75,000 against the tampon tax.

In 2012, a coalition of organisations mobilised a campaign against two proposed US laws that many saw as likely to restrict internet freedom. A circulating petition gathered 4.5 million signatures, which helped put pressure on US representatives not to vote for the bills.

However, all of these petitions were part of larger efforts. There have been campaigns to remove the tax on menstrual products since it was first imposed, there’s a broad movement for more equal gender representation, and there’s significant global activism against online censorship. None of these petitions can claim sole victory. But they may have pushed it over the line, or just added some weight to the groundswell of existing support.

Online petitions can have the obvious impact of changing the very thing they’re campaigning for. However, the type of petition also makes a difference to what change it can achieve.

Choosing a petition worth signing

Knowing a few characteristics of successful petitions can be useful when you’re deciding whether it’s worth your time to sign and share something. Firstly, there should be a target and specific call for action.

These can take many forms: petitions might request a politician vote “yes” on a specific law, demand changes to working conditions at a company, or even ask an advocacy organisation to begin campaigning around a new issue. Vague targets and unclear goals aren’t well suited to petitions. Calls for “more gender equality in society” or “better rights for pets”, for example, are unlikely to achieve success.

Secondly, the goal needs to be realistic. This is so it’s possible to succeed and so supporters feel a sense of optimism. Petitioning for a significant change in a foreign government’s policy – for example, a call from world citizens for better gun control in the US – is unlikely to lead to results.




Read more:
Why #metoo is an impoverished form of feminist activism, unlikely to spark social change


It’s easier to get politicians to change their vote on a single, relatively minor issue than to achieve sweeping legal changes. It’s also more likely a company will change its packaging than completely overhaul its approach to production.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, a petition’s chance of success depends largely on the strength of community supporting it. Petitions rarely work on their own. In her book Twitter and Teargas, Turkish writer Zeynep Tufekci argues the internet allows us to organise action far more quickly than in the past, outpacing the hard but essential work of community organising.

We can get thousands of people signing a petition and shouting in the streets well before we build coalitions and think about long-term strategies. But the most effective petitions will work in combination with other forms of activism.

Change happens gradually

Even petitions that don’t achieve their stated aims or minor goals can play a role in activist efforts. Sharing petitions is one way to bring attention to issues that might otherwise remain off the agenda.

Most online petitions include the option of allowing further updates and contact. Organisations often use a petition to build momentum around an ongoing campaign. Creating, or even signing, online petitions can be a form of micro-activism that helps people start thinking of themselves as capable of creating change.

Signing petitions – and seeing that others have also done so – can help us feel we are part of a collective, working with others to shape our world.

It’s reasonable to think carefully about what we put our names to online, but we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss online petitions as ineffective, or “slack”. Instead, we should think of them as one example of the diverse tactics that help build change over time.The Conversation

Sky Croeser, Lecturer, School of Media, Creative Arts and Social Inquiry, Curtin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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More than ‘slacktivism’: we dismiss the power of politics online at our peril



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Political groups of all stripes recognise the enormous power of online mass persuasion, one meme at a time.
Fibonacci Blue/flickr, CC BY-SA

Joel Penney, Montclair State University

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative between The Conversation and the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.


Log on to Facebook or Twitter and you’re likely to see a deluge of political posts – a humorous meme or viral video skewering politicians like Donald Trump, the latest hashtag slogan in response to breaking news, maybe even a social movement symbol as an updated profile picture.

The sharing of political opinion on social media is now ubiquitous. But what does it mean for democracy?

For years, debate has raged about the significance of symbolic, expressive political activity at the level of the everyday citizen.

Critics fear it is simply self-satisfying “slacktivism”. It gives people an easy way to feel they’re contributing to a cause while substituting for more intensive political participation.

Conversely, optimists see a flourishing of civic engagement on the internet that gives people an accessible entry point into politics. If it helps them to develop a sense of political identity and agency, that enables more participation down the line.

These contrasting positions both have merit. Yet are those who take them asking the right questions in the first place?

By evaluating online political expression only in terms of possible impacts on traditional political activity, we risk sidestepping a far more crucial set of issues.

Forget ‘slacktivism’

Myriad organisations and institutions see this citizen-level expression on social media as being far from just a private or personal affair. It is increasingly valued for its aggregate promotional power. The marketing professions know this as electronic word of mouth.

Political groups of all stripes promote social media participation to amplify the reach and credibility of their persuasive messages. Although each individual act of posting, linking, commenting and liking may look insignificant up close, at a macro level they add up to nothing less than the networked spread of ideas.

There is enormous power here for mass persuasion, one viral share at a time. We dismiss this power at our peril.

During the 2016 US presidential election cycle social media soared to new heights of prominence in the political media landscape. It appears we are finally starting to recognise this power for what it is.


Further reading: Trump, the wannabe king ruling by twiat


For instance, controversy over fake news on sites like Facebook has drawn attention to how peer-to-peer sharing can influence public opinion and even the course of elections (in this case by spreading false and defamatory messages about Hillary Clinton that consolidated her image problems). New research has highlighted how:

… far-right groups develop techniques of ‘attention hacking’ to increase the visibility of their ideas through the strategic use of social media, memes and bots.

Fake news stories from websites like End The Fed are designed to go viral on social media.
End The Fed

The so-called alt-right celebrates its “meme magic” in propagating white nationalist ideology online in service of Trump. The pro-Clinton “Correct the Record” political action committee admits to paying people to post on social media during her primary battle with Bernie Sanders. We are seeing the persuasive value of citizen-level political media coming into sharp focus.

We need to reflect on how we each use this power. That involves thinking through the consequences of what we share online and how it can both strengthen and harm democratic values.

The citizen marketer

Sharing political opinion on social media must be understood in no small part as participation in political marketing. Its practitioners have long circulated persuasive media messages to shape the public mind and influence political outcomes.

This understanding calls for a new kind of media literacy. It requires individuals to acknowledge their own position in circuits of media influence and take seriously their capacity to help shape the flow of political ideas across networks of peers.

We should no longer think of political marketing — or its conceptual forebear, propaganda — as something only powerful elites do. We must recognise that we are all now complicit in this process every time we spread political messages via media platforms that we personally control.

Many citizens are keenly aware of their capacity to persuade their peers through their online posting. They have embraced the role of social media influencer. Most often, they focus on trying to rally the like-minded or undecided, rather than winning over converts from the other side.

This citizen marketer approach to political action can be seen as an outgrowth of the more established concept of the citizen consumer. A citizen consumer deliberately uses their spending power as another way to influence the political sphere.

They may, for instance, buy only environmentally friendly products, or boycott companies whose CEOs donate to campaigns and causes that the consumer opposes. Similarly, we are seeing citizens use their power as micro-level agents of viral media promotion and word-of-mouth endorsement to advance a wide range of political interests and agendas.

#BlackLivesMatter forced America to confront racism once more using the power of social media.

There is an enormous opportunity to democratise the flow of political media messages and publicise causes that lie outside the mainstream.

Consider recent activist movements, often built around viral hashtags like #occupywallsteet and #blacklivesmatter. Here, citizens are co-opting the tools and logics of social media marketing to advocate for political ideas that are typically poorly represented in the corporate mass media.

By recognising the potential value of our own grassroots political marketing power, we can gain a foothold in a political media landscape that elite interests traditionally dominated.

Perhaps even more importantly, cultivating a sense of responsibility for what we share on social media puts us in a better position to navigate the emerging digital ecosystem in which these elite actors are capitalising upon — at times even exploiting – our electronic word of mouth.


Further reading: Snowflake model is transforming political campaigns


Know what you are posting, and who you are posting for

Nowadays, major election campaigns and large-scale issue advocacy organisations have professional digital marketing teams. One of their tasks is to spur the promotional labour of everyday citizens to maximise the virality of their messages, whether these people are truly aware of their participation in political marketing or not.

In addition, for-profit political news sites like Breitbart and The Daily Kos have become dependent on social media shares to boost clicks and advertising revenue, as well as to advance their proprietors’ often-partisan agendas.

In this environment, it is crucial that we make informed decisions when we lend our promotional labour and word-of-mouth endorsement to institutional actors and the interests and agendas they represent.

At times we may be eager to act as “brand evangelists” for candidates, parties, advocacy groups or news agencies whose political goals align with our own. At other times developing media literacy might cause us to pause and reflect before we amplify the latest trending political message.

The Human Rights Campaign logo that made the rounds on Facebook.
The Human Rights Campaign

Back in 2013, Facebook users posted a red equal sign as their profile picture to express their support for same-sex marriage. Some had no idea the symbol was the logo of the Human Rights Campaign. This organisation has had a controversial status in the LGBT movement because of its past treatment of transgender issues.

Would these citizens still have posted the image if they knew they were participating in a viral marketing campaign for an organisation that was not universally supported by the LGBT community, and whose message of equality has drawn criticism for emphasising assimilation over radical structural change?

Or would they have chosen instead to amplify an image and an organisation with a different shade of meaning?

These kinds of important conversations can only be opened up if we start to develop a critical literacy of the citizen marketer approach and how it is transforming what it means to be an active participant in our media-dominated, postmodern political reality.

If we see our online political expressions as mere “slacktivism”, a simple private matter, or just having fun with friends, then we become more vulnerable to manipulation by forces that seek to exploit our citizen marketing power to serve agendas that we may not share.

If we become more aware of our position in these circuits of power, we will be better equipped to resist this manipulation.


The ConversationJoel Penney’s new book, The Citizen Marketer, is available from Oxford University Press.

Joel Penney, Professor of Communication and Media, Montclair State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.