After the election, I was struck by a profound sense of action. I wanted to move quickly and stand up for everything I cared about that felt threatened. But being a busy college student, I defaulted to frantically signing online petitions for everything I was passionate about. Signing these petitions made me feel a little bit more in control and a little bit more like I was making a difference, but I can’t help but wonder, do these petitions really work? Is it just a symbolic, wasted effort in most cases? Can they really affect change? So I dug in to find out about the true power of petitions, and the results are more positive than you might think.
Change.com, a powerful petition generator said, “A petition is a time-tested way to make change. At its simplest, it’s a clear request to a decision maker, signed by many supporters.Governments, companies, and individuals value their reputations and feel accountable to their neighbors, constituents and customers. When hundreds or even thousands of people raise their voices about an issue they care about, the message is very hard to ignore.”
While this is a great quote and a beautiful sentiment, I wanted some examples to back up the supposed power, and I was not disappointed. Petitions have been credited with convincing Gatorade to remove dangerous chemicals from drinks, Congress to pass a landmark disability rights bill, President Obama to sign a Bill of Rights for sexual assault survivors, airlines to ban the passage of endangered animals, and the government to stop the Keystone Pipeline among many other feats.
The study of digital activism is on the rise because us millennials just love supporting causes on the internet. But here is the drawback of digital activism and petitions. While it can be a highly effective way of supporting change, online petitions can give you a false sense of fulfillment and satisfaction and encourage you that sitting on the couch is enough. For instance, don’t fool yourself into thinking that signing a petition will end climate change. This is called “slactivism” which is defined as “actions performed via the internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement, e.g. signing an online petition or joining a campaign group on a social media website or application.”
Kate Krontiris, a civic researcher and strategist affiliated with the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard, found in a study that 48.9% of the U.S. adults are “interested bystanders.” These bystanders care about the issues and stay informed but struggle to use their voice. They fall on one of the lowest rungs of civic engagement under those who vote, protest, campaign and organize.
Dave Karpf, a professor at George Washington University, explained that petitions are often just the first step to a larger movement. He explains that online petitions help build a broader campaign and as a tactic can send a signal of public opinion to a decision maker, inform the media there is enough public attention for a story, build a database of those who are interested in an issue, spur additional action and raise money.
Bottom line: Research whether the petition and organization are credible. There are so many different false petitions out there, and once you put your name and info down you join the organization. Make sure the petition has a target followed with deliverable steps and be prepared to follow up and take action through social media, donations or volunteering. Don’t just sign to sign. Sign with purpose and intention to see the cause through. Let’s all pledge to be more than interested bystanders in 2017.
Photo By: Irina Puchkova @irinapuchkova