Is online petitioning just a tool for internet users to play pretend activist, or does it inspire a real change?

 The tools necessary in creating online campaigns are at internet users’ fingertips. Simply typing ‘online petition’ into a search engine reveals websites providing a platform on which campaigns can collect signatures to target governments and companies. But how successful have modern petitioning methods really been in achieving change?

On a national level, the UK government launched an e-petition site in August 2011 as a way to make Parliament more accessible to the population. The website revolves around 100,000 signatures as a key figure. Once a petition reaches this number of supporters, it is passed onto a committee who consider its suitability for a House of Commons debate. Within its first year of use, eight petitions from the site had been debated in Parliament.

On a global scale, online petition sites exist to help petitioners to deliver signatures to intended targets regarding economic, human rights, environmental and health issues. The homepages of these sites are filled with success stories. When journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were imprisoned in North Korea in 2009, a petition signed by 90,000 was influential in Bill Clinton travelling to the state to negotiate their release. Closer to home, a petition for disclosure of government documents on the 1989 Hillsborough disaster attracted 155,979 signatures, forcing the government to state its position regarding document release.

Despite these successes, petitioning has been criticised for a lack of direct change. Whilst an issue may raise huge support amongst a population changes are often unachievable without the agreement of governments or companies. Critics have introduced the term ‘slacktivism’, criticising a perceived complacency in those who sign online petitions but offer no further support.

Yet even if online petitions do not achieve their aim of direct change, strength lies in their ability to raise awareness across a huge population, increasing funding and support for campaigns. Online petitioners have a wide range of social networks available on which they can promote their campaigns.This has been shown in Emily Clarke’s campaign regarding the planned execution of Mariam Yehya in Sudan for her marriage to a Christian. Within 24 hours her petition had gathered 71,860 signatures, mainly through the support of Facebook and Twitter users.

Emily had this to say about the success that can result from social media as a tool for change:

We hear about injustice all the time and it’s all too easy to sit back and do nothing. But I would urge everyone, wherever you are, to try and do something. Online petitioning makes it possible. First you will have the support of your friends and family and you might get 50 supporters, and then you use social media and that 50 becomes 500. Then people start spreading the word, 500 become 5 000 and 5 000 turns to 50 000 and then eventually you have a movement, and maybe, just maybe, somewhere you will make a difference. This is the power of online petitioning. What do we have to lose?

The combination of social media and the availability of petition sites has enabled campaigners to reach wider audiences than ever before. Despite restrictions on how far campaigns can influence their direct targets, a key achievement of modern petitioning has come from the realisation of the potential to reach vast amounts of supporters within hours.

 

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