Online petitions: worth your time?

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Creating change online

As someone who’s signed my fair share of online petitions, I have often wondered what impact I really have on the greater issue. It seems like every month I’m hearing about a new cause I’d gladly support, such as the movement to release a new American Girl Doll with a disability. But sometimes I wonder if my only form of activism is my signature, am I actually making a difference?

Currently, the availability of online petitions seems to be ever-increasing, with sites such as change.org, causes.com, and thepetitionsite.com, among many others, offering resources to both create and sign petitions. As one of the most prominent sites for online petitions, change.org reports, “more than 10 million people…using the site, and more than 15,000 new campaigns…launched every month”, according to NPR.org. Yet as the popularity of online petitions continues to grow, it raises the question as to whether or not any of the thousands of petitions available on the internet have any real impact on their intended targets.

Can online petitions be a valid form of activism? The answer, I think, is both yes and no. Sadly, just attaching your name and email address to an issue is usually not enough to achieve any real action. Oftentimes, it can be difficult to ensure a petition even reaches its intended target. Critics of online petitions argue that giving a cause your virtual signature is just another method of ‘slacktivism’, defined by Urbandictionary.com as “the act of participating in obviously pointless activities as an expedient alternative to actually expending effort to fix a problem.” On the other hand, however, online petitions can be a valuable means of increasing awareness of an issue. Even if the goals of the petition are not fulfilled, behind every signature is a person who has the potential to spread news of the issue to their family and friends, and from them onto others. According to Fox news, “those who engage in social issues online are twice as likely as their offline counterparts to volunteer and participate in events…slacktivists often graduate to full-blown activism.”

Unfortunately, there does not appear to be a real formula for a successful online petition. A multitude of different factors can go into the creation of an online petition, and many different aspects can result in its success or failure. One major feature is the intended target of the petition.  If the target of a petition is receptive to public opinion and input, they may be more likely to respond to and even fulfill the goal of the petition than a target who is not.

Here we approach the critical question: have any online petitions ever actually worked? The answer is yes. Let me share some examples with you. Following the release of the film adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ children’s book The Lorax, a petition was started by a fourth-grade class to put more of an emphasis on the environmentalism theme. The petition was a success. According to the children’s teacher, Ted Wells, “Universal Studios changed The Lorax webpage almost exactly as my class requested!” Recently the Bank of America followed the request of an online petition and dropped its $5 fee for debit cards. Assault charges against Emily Holcomb, a fifteen year-old with autism, were dropped after a petition regarding the matter gathered 1,200 signatures. A boy who had missed too many days of school staying home to take care of his sick mother was allowed to walk in his high school graduation ceremony following the success of a petition to “Let Fisher Walk”. Many more successful petitions can be viewed at www.change.org/victories, where stories such as “Innocent man freed after 13 years in prison”, and “KKK leader’s name removed from high school” are proudly displayed.

While not all online petitions accomplish their goals, it cannot be denied that online petitions can create valid social change. Whether or not the target of a petition decides to listen to the requests of the public, or the petition simply serves as a method of raising awareness, with every signature the cause grows. In my opinion, signing an online petition, while not a guarantee of achieving an impact, offers a way to raise awareness and can be a good supplement to offline activism.

If you do want to try your hand at starting an online petition, here are some tips that may increase your chances of success:

  • Raise awareness. Use Twitter, Facebook, email, whatever you can to get the word out
  • Try to get popular blogs or people on twitter to support your message
  • Involve local media
  • Include a personal message for the intended receiver of your petition. Make sure they know why this issue matters to you personally
  • Good luck!

Sources:

Do online petitions really work?, on Owstarr.com, May 19, 2012.

O’Connor, K., Slacktivism or this generation’s activism: do online petitions work? on Article-3.com, September 27, 2012.

Quinn, L.S & Andrei, K.H., A few good online petition tools, on Idealware.org, July, 2011.

Tomassoni, T., Petitions are going viral, sometimes to great success, on NPR.org, March 16, 2012.