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Can Online Petitions Change the World?

Science & Tech  (tags: Online petitions, impact, real or not?, slacktivism )

Sai Krish
- 1498 days ago -
The million-dollar (or perhaps million-signature) questions are: do all those signatures mean people are becoming more socially engaged; and are they actually having an impact?

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Sai Krishna G (1)
Saturday April 12, 2014, 10:56 pm
Across Canada doorbells are ringing and diets are falling to the irresistible sales pitches of little girls in uniform. It's Girl Guide cookie season. But nine-year-old Maya Fischer of Victoria, B.C. isn't out pushing delectable chocolate-mint treats, she's trying to remake them -- free from genetically-modified ingredients. She's gathering signatures on her online petition to Girl Guides of Canada. At press time, she had 27,100 and was a featured petition on the e-petition website

Pick a cause, any cause, from the compelling to the ridiculous, and there will be an e-petition for it: award Malala Yousafzai the Nobel prize (298,681 signatures); condemn Russia's anti-gay laws at the Olympics (213,593 signatures); or put the Trailer Park Boys on Canadian currency. A call to release Grand Theft Auto on PC is stealing the show on with 600,000 signatures.

Canadian filmmakers John Greyson and Tarek Loubani may owe their freedom to an online petition signed by almost 150,000 people. The pair just returned to Canada after 50 harrowing days in an Egyptian jail -- the petition raised global awareness of their plight.

Online petitions -- they are the ubiquitous new face of participatory democracy. We'll bet even now, lurking in your inbox or Facebook page, there's at least one impassioned plea to change the world with a mouse click. The million-dollar (or perhaps million-signature) questions are: do all those signatures mean people are becoming more socially engaged; and are they actually having an impact?

As teens, we petitioned for the release of jailed Indian child labour activist Kailash Satyarthi the old-fashioned way -- with pen and paper, haunting the farmers' market to lobby every passing shopper and hitting up our neighbours. We gathered 10,000 signatures, spent countless hours verifying them, and posted the petition to our Member of Parliament in a shoebox. It was read aloud in the House of Commons. Real old-school activism.

But online petitions are derided as new-school "slacktivism."

Skeptics believe e-petitions are paper tigers because the people who make and sign them aren't truly engaged in the cause. With a click the slacktivist joins 10 causes before breakfast -- and has forgotten them by the time the toaster pops.

The skeptics might be wrong. A 2011 study by researchers at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., found that those who support a cause online -- signing an e-petition or joining a Facebook group -- are two times more likely to volunteer their time for the cause, four times more likely to follow up by contacting a decision-maker, and five times more likely to recruit others, than a person who supports a cause offline, e.g. with a paper petition.

"The term slacktivism is unfair and inaccurate as a descriptive of the online petition phenomenon," says Dr. Jonathan White, Director of Service Learning at Bentley University in Massachusetts and an expert in cause engagement.

So online activists aren't slacktivists, but are their petitions having an impact?

The first thing to realize is that there are two basic origins of online petitions.

In the first, non-profit organizations like Avaaz launch a campaign to address a global issue -- like the Tanzanian government uprooting Maasai villages to make way for a game park. Avaaz uses an online petition to raise global awareness and support for their campaign. After Avaaz rallied 1.7-million signatures, the Tanzanian Prime Minister told the Maasai they would not be evicted.

In the second, individual citizens use a free do-it-yourself petition website like to start a personal campaign. In Halifax, for example, Sherri Bain started her own petition to shame the Nova Scotia government into reviewing police conduct in the Rehteah Parsons bullying-suicide case. In April, then-Premier Darrell Dexter announced there would be an independent review. At, organizations can also "sponsor" a petition -- paying to promote their petition to users.

We spoke with representatives from Avaaz and They point to successes like Tanzania and Nova Scotia to show petitions can have an impact but -- and here's the critical part -- only when backed up with real-world action. Avaaz organizes global media and lobbying efforts around its petitions. trains petitioners like Maya (and her mom) in media relations and lobbying. To rephrase an old expression: change cannot live by petition alone. Do media interviews, organize a march, make follow-up calls to decision-makers, and recruit your friends to do the same.

So skeptics take heed: to dismiss online activism as mere slacktivism is to ignore one of the very real positive social benefits of the Internet. But a warning to activists as well: e-petitions can help you change the world, but only when mixed with a little old-school elbow grease.

And in case you're worried, we won't be seeing the Trailer Park Boys on a $10 bill any time soon -- they only have six signatures so far.

Sai Krishna G (1)
Saturday April 12, 2014, 10:58 pm
Related article:

The age of 'slacktivism': Online advocacy has many supporters and detractors

Last week, Lisa Allred signed her first online petition.

"I usually sneer at (online activism)," said the 24-year-old resident of Provo. "I feel like it has a placebo effect it is meant to make people feel like they're affecting change and doing good, without having to do anything that gets (them) out of their comfort zone."

But when Disney released "Brave" heroine Merida's princess makeover, fans and parents took to the Web to express their displeasure at the now glittery and "sexified" version of what was once an independent, mold-breaking heroine. Their efforts included gathering more than 230,000 signatures for a petition on One of them was Allred's.

"I feel really conflicted about it. If it's something that gets me riled up, I should have the guts to find out a way I can actually affect change, (not just sign an online petition)," Allred said.

Meanwhile in Sweden, another type of organization was feeling the sting of questionable online advocacy. UNICEF Sweden launched an ad campaign urging would-be digital do-gooders to give financially instead of "liking" pages on Facebook.

"Likes don't save lives," was the message. "Money does."

Dubbed "slacktivism" or "quicktivism," advocacy through social media has both supporters and detractors. Is it a placebo or can likes make a difference?

The rise of social media

As of December 2012, the Pew Research Center reports that 67 percent of online adults are using social media worldwide, and more than 2 billion people (children and adults) use social media worldwide.

Nonprofits are pursuing this audience in the social space. In 2012, 93 percent of U.S. nonprofits reported using at least one social network presence.

"Social media is the communication vehicle," said Kim Garst, an independent social media and branding strategist. "In the past it's been so hard mobilizing large numbers of people behind a cause they've relied a lot on traditional media covering it, growing community by community."

While traditional advocacy includes activities like rallies, letter writing, fundraising and boycotts, activism online typically includes activities like signing petitions, retweeting on Twitter, re-posting on websites, liking things on Facebook or changing avatar information to reflect support for a cause.

Organizations are chiefly using social media users to spread their messages, though they're not necessarily calling them to action. While 93 percent of online nonprofits reported using social media for marketing, only about half reported using social media for fundraising or other actions, according to the 2012 Nonprofit Social Network Report.

Yet traditional advocacy is not dead, at least not according to Jonathan Obar, visiting assistant professor of telecommunication, information studies and media at Michigan State University.

"Quite often when scholars (or) critics look at a new technology, they ask, 'Is it going to replace the previous technology, so the previous technology doesn't have to be used anymore? (Or will it fail)?' " Obar said. "The truth is neither of those things are the case. Generally speaking, they end up supplementing."

"People have to realize these groups are not going to change everything and drop everything and go completely online. The groups will continue to use a variety of strategies, and the digital activism will just be one component of their strategies, of their toolkit. ... They still organize public events in the offline space," Obar said.

"These new forms of activism are an additional set of tools. Some of them are very excited about these tools because they're seeing results."

Results, however, can vary widely depending both on the desired result and on the relationship between the online and offline spaces.

Influencing key players

Last summer, as the U.S. Congress considered the Stop Online Piracy Act to combat online copyright infringement, millions used social media to express their displeasure at what they considered an attack on freedom of speech. People tweeted and changed Facebook profile pictures and other online avatars. Wikipedia blacked out its website for 24 hours in a show of solidarity. The legislation was ultimately postponed, indefinitely.

Obar said slacktivism can be effective when targeted toward specific individuals, particularly policymakers.

"If a million people sign up on Facebook, that can't turn the tide alone, but that's something for (advocacy groups) to bring to policymakers," said Obar.

"In all forms of activism, engagement is one of the most important tools and if these new media technologies can get people engaged then of course they're going to help to advance these initiatives. But the question is, 'What will sway policymakers?'" Obar added.

"Is it just getting lots of people to sign up or is it to get people to submit detailed comments to government dockets? What form of engagement will lead to policy change? Is joining a group just enough?"

It depends on what kind of change the organization is looking for exposure, money or policy change.

"If you see it as just trying to raise awareness, you're achieving your goal," Allred said. "I think if you're actually trying to affect change and get people to become activists, I think you are better served pursuing other venues."

In the case of UNICEF, the kind of exposure brought on by slacktivism wasn't enough. After working with research company YouGov, UNICEF found that users in Sweden had some "misconceptions" about social media, according to Petra Hallebrant, UNICEF Sweden's director.

"One in 5 thinks that a like on Facebook is a good way of supporting an organization," she said, according to Health Care News. "Two in 3 have liked something on Facebook without caring about the message or issue. One in 7 thinks that liking an organization on Facebook is as good as donating money."

In response to those findings, UNICEF Sweden launched its campaign to show its supporters what it really needs: money.

"Like us on Facebook, and we will vaccinate zero children against polio," read one online ad. "We have nothing against likes, but vaccines cost money."

Personal effects

Are slacktivists really less likely to engage, volunteer and send money? Or could it be an effective gateway to participation? The jury's still out.

"One of the great things about digital activism is it can engage people who otherwise might not engage in the offline space," said Obar. "When people are participating in activism online, at least they're participating."

Yet there's also concern among experts about a "moral balancing" effect: If someone retweets or signs a petition, they won't feel the need to contribute money or volunteer.

"The concern of course is, 'Do the digital forms of activism take the people and reduce what they're doing to online?' I don't know if digital activism will reduce what otherwise might be strong offline activism, but I think it does have the possibility," Obar said.

According to one study from Michigan State University, those who signed an online petition were more likely to donate to a related cause, while those who didn't sign donated significantly more money to an unrelated cause signifying that exposure to activism on digital media could trigger more involvement either way.

It can also start a dialogue among friends and family for good or ill, particularly when the activism involves points of controversy.

"It's very difficult to share stuff like (politics or religion) on social without the good and the bad. You end up having this massive hatefest on your Facebook page," Garst said. "There's no middle ground anymore; there's no compromise. I am concerned that social is going to continue to drive that wedge."

However, by exposing that inner activist, slacktivism can also provide a way to contribute with limited time and resources. Garst said that engaging in causes online does allow for different levels of advocacy, promotion and involvement.

"For most of us, time and money are our enemy," Garst said. "You care about the cause, you do, but how deep does that run? How much time and effort are you really willing to spend?"

Busy herself, Allred sees slacktivism's appeal. "I don't have a lot of time right now," Allred said. "I hear about these issues, but it doesn't necessarily translate into action on my part. But with slacktivism, somebody has already translated that into an action, however minuscule. It's like, 'Oh, I should take action.' It gets you thinking about it."

"One of the first things (nonprofits) say is social media, digital media allow them to broaden their reach as a result that opens them up to more opportunity," Obar said. "The question that's unanswered is does that opportunity translate?"

fly b (26)
Saturday April 12, 2014, 10:59 pm
Thank you

Past Member (0)
Saturday April 12, 2014, 11:07 pm
Very interesting.

Let's hope that we are indeed making a difference.

Terry H (15)
Sunday April 13, 2014, 2:08 am
Very important, everyone should read

Evelyn B (62)
Sunday April 13, 2014, 3:11 am
Very valuable couple of articles -
I've avoided launching petitions (despite frequant temptation to!) because I'm not sure that I would be able to provide the appropriate follow up & use of all the signatures ... To do otherwise would be to abuse the good will of all those who sign.
Reading these articles, especially the first, confirms my gut feeling that one should only post a petition if one also has a clear "game plan" for how to use the signed petition effectively. I am certain that just submitting a petition with many signatures is not sufficient - however many signatures one has "harvested". Word has to be got out widely about the support garnered - through all the media - as well as ensuring that the petition really gets into the hands of the right decision-makers.

Maybe petition sites that encourage everyone to submit petitions on causes they care about need also to verify that there IS a realistic, viable game plan ... and maybe help people formulate them. That would also apply to Care2's petition site, where many petitions have vague or inappropriate "targets" ... Those posting have the best will in the world, but mis-directed, unthoughtout petitions are a waste of goodwill.

Ben O (171)
Sunday April 13, 2014, 3:53 am
Well, I have signed 9,700 Care2 petitions, and I don't know how many thousands others...
Probably a total waste of time...???

Judith Hand (55)
Sunday April 13, 2014, 9:09 am
Noted, tweeted. An excellent article; too bad wasn't thrown in there. It reminded me that the Avaaz petition for the Masai is still accepting signatures, so I need to resend my original. I mentioned, somewhere, that I've a brother who's a retired State Senator's Aide. He said that a letter comes across more impressively to those folks; perhaps that would be ab extra elbow grease effort that the author was speaking of. One thing that I know, having grown up writing letters (old fashioned, my roommate tells me) is that these days they are very rare and they do stand out. We all have 24 hours in a day and I just don't get how the most active of us can get so much done in their 24 hours!! (I admire y'all). I have a hard enough time doing just some of what I'd like to accomplish on care2 every day. I'm glad to read in this article that petitions do make a difference. Thank God and all of you who make a difference! Thanks for the article, Sai.

Judith Hand (55)
Sunday April 13, 2014, 9:16 am
Sai, read the 2nd article out of the Deseret News that you gave link for immediately under your first comment. Thanks.

Roger G (154)
Sunday April 13, 2014, 1:28 pm
noted, thanks

Jane H (139)
Sunday April 13, 2014, 2:21 pm
interesting thanks

Patsy Olive (0)
Sunday April 13, 2014, 3:09 pm
Noted. and sign one.

Shirley H (49)
Sunday April 13, 2014, 3:39 pm
I believe in the power of the people. It starts at home and reaches out to others. We can make a difference.

Thomas B (1)
Sunday April 13, 2014, 3:40 pm
Beats hell out of paper petitions.

Birgit W (160)
Sunday April 13, 2014, 3:55 pm
This is the reason why I am here on Care2. Thanks.

Sheri Schongold (7)
Sunday April 13, 2014, 4:30 pm
Perhaps, not as much as we want all the time, but they are beginning to matter and accomplish things. The results are what counts.

Kathleen R (138)
Sunday April 13, 2014, 4:34 pm
Read & noted

donald Baumgartner (6)
Sunday April 13, 2014, 8:50 pm
I believe they do!!!

Helen Porter (39)
Monday April 14, 2014, 12:42 am
We are connected with the activists who get out there and do something with their physical bodies in action.
We support them. There's no way the OFF LINE activists could get the number of signatures that we get.

I think it's a matter of we the people doing what we can do and doing it together to change our world.

I intend to keep signing.

Every now and then Care2 publishes a list of wins. No, we did not win alone. Care2 is part of a great mass of people who are doing what they can do. And we are an effective part of that great mass of people.

I'm grateful for the opportunity.

Helen Porter (39)
Monday April 14, 2014, 12:53 am
I suggest that you do what I just did.

I put in the Care2 search box .....victories of Care2.

No, we didn't win those many victories alone. Victories are not won by single individuals or groups. If we are going to save our planet we must save it together. We're linked with other groups.

That's one thing I like about Care2. It doesn't rouse my ego. I know I had something to do with the victories. I also know I am only one person among thousands. Each one of those thousands is only one person among thousands. Alone we can do almost nothing. TOGETHER we may well save our planet.

Helen Porter (39)
Monday April 14, 2014, 1:22 am
I searched Care2 Success

Here's what I found:

care2 success

Success! Ayla Can Keep Her Rooster, Dallas!

Success! Ayla Can Keep Her Rooster, Dallas!

Success! Badger Culls in England Will Not Expand

Success! Badger Culls in England Will Not Expand

Success! Japan's Scientific Whaling Program Has to Stop, Rules World Court

Success! Japan's Scientific Whaling Program Has to Stop, Rules World Court

Success! Public Education For Special Needs Kids Saved in Wisconsin

Success! Public Education For Special Needs Kids Saved in Wisconsin

Success! Texas Won't Destroy Historic Oak Trees

Success! Texas Won't Destroy Historic Oak Trees

Success! Oregon Town Rejects Breed-Specific Dog Bans

Success! Oregon Town Rejects Breed-Specific Dog Bans

Victory! Colorado Bans Greyhound Racing

Victory! Colorado Bans Greyhound Racing

Success! 9-Year-Old Anthony Gonzales' Future Has Been Saved

Success! 9-Year-Old Anthony Gonzales' Future Has Been Saved

Success! Sarah Elizabeth Jones Honored at the Oscars

Success! Sarah Elizabeth Jones Honored at the Oscars

Success! Canada Bans Gestation Crates For Pigs

Success! Canada Bans Gestation Crates For Pigs
356 comments more from success



Alone we can do almost nothing. Together we can save our planet.


Helen Porter (39)
Monday April 14, 2014, 1:24 am
Enough of this doubting nonsense.

Come with me. Let's go sign some petitions.


Julie W (32)
Monday April 14, 2014, 2:55 am
I get enough follow-up emails that tell me a petition has succeeded to keep believing they are worthwhile So I'll just keep going - we must be hopeful..

Helen Porter (39)
Monday April 14, 2014, 5:43 am
You mention the concern about social contact and activity.

Perhaps you are not aware that we have many Care2 members who are ill or handicapped or have other reasons for not being able to be involved in social gatherings. Some of our members are past 100 years old.
Care2 is social as well as online activists. Care2 is the only social activity many of our members have. It gives purpose to their lives. Some have many friends with whom they exchange communication as well as e cards and comments (pictures).

Care2 is a social activity for those unable to go out into the community but are homebound.

Care2 gives many of its members purpose in life. By signing petitions they are making a contribution to society. AND THEY ARE. Many are lonely until they have several Care2 friends. Then these dear people are too busy to be lonely.

I became a volunteer around 1980. I visited in hospitals. I was a volunteer on Suicide Prevention. I've worked in soup kitchens and nurseries and much more. I don't want to roll off a list of good deeds. I just want you to know I have been VERY socially involved as I was able to be at that time.

Still, I do not feel that I was ever able to do as much good as I can do with Care2 Petitions. I like to search Care2 to read our wins. Again, I only am able to help make changes in our world through online petitions. I also like to encourage my friends in their Care2 volunteerism.

I do not like it when my Care2 friends and associates are subjected to criticism because they aren't doing what they CAN NOT do. They are doing what they CAN DO!!!

Arielle S (313)
Monday April 14, 2014, 11:49 am
If nothing else, petitions help make people aware of things that need to be changed. But as Zee shows above, petitions DO make a difference - Care2 members work hard and have made a difference. It's ALL important - whether it's simply recycling a bag or if it's stopping a pipeline - intent is everything and every little bit tells the world there are those who care.

Nancy C (806)
Wednesday April 16, 2014, 4:40 pm
And Zee's list is from Care2 she says..."be encouraged". I sign and share petitions for dozens of ngo's and receive results, positive, encouraging, and also winning results every month. Don't think that our "work" is not heard and appreciated. When it's balked at, we're making headway in stubborn arenas! I'll never stop!!!

Melania Padilla (122)
Thursday June 4, 2015, 9:15 am
Based on my own experience I think yes. We've had several victories and I've met wonderful people for the different causes I care about. Thanks for posting
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