They can work. There are two things we need to keep in mind when trying to answer that question. The first is: what are you trying to do? The second is: who are you trying to convince? A petition in its most basic form is an entreaty to some target to get them to do something that they wouldn’t otherwise do. In that narrow sense, a petition is a political tactic, and like any political tactic, on its own it’s rarely going to be successful unless what you’re asking for is pretty small. But petitions can be a tactic of a larger campaign, and in that case they can often be very effective – you can use a petition to build, very effectively. One thing an online petition can do that hashtags and Facebook likes can’t do is that a petition – at a site like 38degrees – leaves behind the residue of an email address that allows further contact with the signers.
Petitions can also serve as media objects. My favourite example was a high school in Trumbull, Connecticut, where the drama club was going to put on a production of Rent. The high school got a new principal, who felt it was far too edgy for Connecticut in 2014, and cancelled it. The students were outraged and started a petition. He ignored it, because high school principals are good at ignoring their students when they’re outraged – that’s kind of their job.
But it got forwarded to the Arts Beat blog at the New York Times. The writer thought it was kind of fun, other outlets picked it up as well, and all of a sudden this goes from being an interaction between the students and their principal, to an interaction between the principal and the New York Times. The principal doesn’t mind students yelling at him; he doesn’t want to be a laughing stock in the Times. So he changes his mind. That’s a case where the petition is effective not just because of the signatures, but the way it gets used strategically to create pressure.
“For a petition to directly affect government policy, it needs to be on an issue which wasn’t already on the government’s radar.”
For a petition to directly affect government policy, it needs to be on an issue which wasn’t already on the government’s radar, and about which there weren’t already dug-in positions. There was the Cellphone Unlocking Bill – at the White House petitions site, thousands of people signed, demanding that cellphone carriers allow people to unlock their phones from that carrier. That’s not an issue like abortion, or climate change, where there are already clear interests who have marked out their places. That petition is alerting the government that there’s an issue about which there wasn’t a lot of opinion and now there is. That can be very effective. You won’t see an online petition saving social security on its own, though.
There’s a bit of a credibility issue – it’s occasionally been called ‘advocacy inflation’. In the older media environment, 500 signatures would get attention. Now you might need 5,000 or 50,000. And if you’re contacting a president or prime minister, the baseline is higher than if you’re contacting your city council. But although that threshold has been raised, you can also do more strategically with online petitions, and that’s a good thing. If we care enough about an issue to do more than just leave our signature, but to think strategically to find a way to create leverage, the more tools at our disposal the better.
David Karpf is the author of The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy.