Online Petitions - The New Activism Tool for Success?

Online petitions are now dominating much of the activism space in Australia, especially for Not for Profits. But the big question is: do they really work? Journalist Jackie Hanafie follows this latest trend.

The campaigning tactic of petitioning is as old as time, but with the increase of digital technologies, the last five years have seen the introduction of a number of major web initiatives for online petitioning in Australia.

And Australian campaigning organisations say they have seen a significant growth in people engaging with online petitions.

Australia’s most prominent organisations in the online petition space are Not for Profit progressive activist group GetUp and for-profit social enterprise Change.org.

While both organisations’ end goal is to create change by pressuring decision-makers, the way in which they operate is completely different.

GetUp’s national director Sam McLean says that the organisation has seen “massive growth” in membership in the past two years with an increase of 300,000 members since July 2011, while Change.org says it has seen a 20-25 per cent growth month on month, with more than 700,000 people engaging with the online site in the last year.

GetUp was launched in August 2005 – the week the Coalition took control of the Australian Senate.

It refers to itself as “a new independent political movement to build a progressive Australia” and relies on its more than 600,000 members to mobilise and act on initiatives such as sending emails to MPs, signing petitions or attending events.

GetUp’s major campaigns have included support for same-sex marriage, condemning calls for violence against Julian Assange and support for an end to mandatory detention.

On the other hand, Change.org is a for-profit online petitioning platform which is free for the public to use and relies on advertising for revenue.

While Change.org has only been operating in Australia for a year, the organisation has seen huge success in its online petitions overseas.

“Change.org is continuing to be a site people are coming to, to both start petitions and sign them,” Change.org’s campaigns director Karen Skinner said.

Skinner says that Change.org’s technology is easy enough to be used by anyone – even those who are not tech-savvy.

“Basically anyone can start a petition,” Skinner said. “The majority of the petitions are not started by organisations and the beauty of the tool is that a lot of the people who start campaigns have never campaigned before.”

Amnesty International Australia’s online manager Seb Cumberbirch says that petitions – whether online or traditional – are still one of the most effective, commonly understood forms of activism.

“The very simple idea of signing your name for something you believe in is still very powerful today,” Cumberbirch said.

“Petitions are very important and still very much at the core of what campaigning’s about,” he said. “I don’t think that will change.”

But do they really work?

Online petitions are now dominating much of the activism space and generating mainstream media attention in their own right. But the big question is: do they really generate change?

Campaigners say that online petitions can actually have a remarkable amount of influence on decision-makers. But others claim they are a waste of time and energy.

Karen Skinner from Change.org says that the recent Alan Jones saga - whereby an online petition on Change.org pressured advertisers to withdraw support from Jones’s radio program – was one example of the way in which online petitions can mobilise the general public to put pressure on businesses.

“The Alan Jones campaign showed the power of consumers to be influencing companies,” Skinner said.

“They [online petitions] break down the barriers that may exist between decision makers and the general public.

“We are seeing people winning campaigns every week. People are forming a powerful force winning change and lowering the barrier,” Skinner said.

GetUp’s Sam McLean says that initially there was a lot of suspicion about online petitions.

“The truth is that GetUp can verify their petitions in a way a lot of other groups can't. We can show our members are real people with a history of supporting various campaigns,” McLean said.

“These days in Canberra, when we say we have 250,000 signatures, pollies listen.”


GetUp says it has seen "massive growth" in membership over the last 18 months. 

 

Digital agency, Reactive, lists a number of Not for Profits such as Amnesty International and The Benevolent Society as clients.

Reactive’s creative director Tim Buesing says that Not for Profits are increasingly including online petitions as part of their digital strategies.

Bussing says that beyond a its immediate objectives, online petitions are used to reconnect with core audiences, gain new supporters and earn media, especially in social spaces.

“This in turn lifts the organisations' 'find-ability' through search and adds to its data value, making their future communication broader in reach and more personal at the same time,” Bussing said.

Experienced Not for Profit campaigner and marketer Alex White says there is little doubt that petitions are a powerful organising tool for Not for Profits and advocacy organisations.

“The primary benefit is that when someone signs an online petition, the person's contact details are passed onto the Not for Profit. The Not for Profit can then use those details for fundraising, advocacy, new client or member recruitment,” White said.

“Online petitions provide a cost-effective, efficient way to gain new supporters. The many free petition platforms and services are 'good' in that they allow a Not for Profit to quickly and cheaply put a petition online.”

White organised a successful online petition using Change.org calling for the Victorian government to fund a test site for the National Disability Insurance Scheme for Inclusion Melbourne.

However White, who has worked on many campaigns including the 2012 Obama campaign in the United States, suggests that the growth of petition websites is not necessarily tied to assisting Not for Profits fulfilling their aims.

“Simply put, online petitions are getting to be big business. Most of the organisations providing these services are either for-profit or advocacy organisations with their own agendas,” he said.

“This means that the petition tools are not necessarily flexible or designed with the Not for Profit’s needs in mind.”

Tim Bussing warns though, that online petitions are not a silver bullet.

He says that they can have a detrimental effect on an organisation’s core supporters, if they are not backed up by compelling facts or happen too frequently.

“They have to be carefully planned, strategically executed,” Bussing said.

But while most campaigners argue that online petitions are an extremely useful activism tool, UK-based cyber research and intelligence firm mediabadger recently posted a blog suggesting that online petitions are “useless”.

“So here’s a reality check in regards to online petitions: they are meaningless in regards to actual change in civil society – what that means is, if you think a government is going to change a law or bring in a new law because you signed an online petition – you are mistaken. That is not going to happen,” the blog reads.

The blog goes on to list a number of reasons why online petitions are a waste of time including that digital signatures are not recognised in parliament and that they are inadmissible.

“Anyone can set up multiple email addresses and pose as an individual. It takes just a few minutes. While you might treasure your personal Gmail or Hotmail address, law-makers don’t care,” the blog says.

Activism 2.0 and “slacktivism”

Another argument against online campaigning which has aggressively surfaced in the last few years is the idea of Activism 2.0, otherwise known as “slacktivism” or “clicktivism”.

Sceptics use words like “slacktivism” to describe political action that demands nothing more of a user than pressing a button or signing a petition.

In an article in The Guardian, Patrick Kingsley explored whether online petitions and email campaigns are a powerful new form of protest or a lazy option for people who have failed to engage with the issues.

“Cynics argue that signing an online petition, like joining a Facebook group, takes mere seconds, achieves little, and doesn't encourage clicktivists to engage properly with the issues concerned,” writes Kingsley.

A recent study by Georgetown University has shown that “slacktivists” may be more active - and more valuable - than previously thought.

In what is being described as the first study into online activism, the report revealed that people who sign online petitions or click ‘like’ on a Facebook campaign are twice as likely to volunteer or to take part in an event.

It also found that they are more than four times as likely to encourage others to contact political representatives and five times as likely to recruit others to sign petitions for a cause or social issue.

Amnesty International Australia’s Seb Cumberbirch also argues that digital activism rarely ends with the click of a mouse.

“The Georgetown University study shows that we are starting to see trends coming through. It’s now data versus opinion,” Cumberbirch said.

Cumberbirch says he disagrees with the sentiment that online activists have a lazy attitude to change.

“It galvanises people, gives them opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have especially in an increasingly time-poor society,” he said.

Alex White agrees. “There's a concept called the commitment and consistency principle, which basically means that people who say they're going to do something are more likely to do it,” he said.

“Signing those online petitions, liking causes on Facebook and forwarding emails makes it more likely for those people to actually take the next step.”

White says it’s up to the Not for Profits and advocacy organisations to follow the so-called slacktivists up.

“The real slacktivists are the Not for Profits that only do online action, or who ask supporters to sign an online petition and then give the supporter no opportunity to take action in the real world,” White argued.

The future of digital petitioning in Australia

Slacktivism or not, it seems that online petitions are going from strength to strength in Australia.

Sam McLean says that as the online world continues to grow, organisations that want a future will have to grow online.

“We are going to be doing a lot more work in the corporate space. Our members have made it clear to us that we should use all avenues of change including corporate activism,” McLean said.

Meanwhile, Karen Skinner from Change.org predicts more advanced campaigning by the ‘average person’.

“This means people will start with a petition, but will then escalate signers involvement by asking them to take further actions.”

Skinner says this will see more sophisticated campaigns being run not just by existing organisations, but by individuals.

“We're also seeing informal, or sometimes formal coalitions of individuals forming using online tools,” Skinner said. “For example, there are now a group of people behind 'Destroy the Joint' which are networked online by the Alan Jones campaign, but are now moving into wider campaigning.”

Cumberbirch says that the future lies in an 'empowerment model' where people have access to the tools to campaign digitally themselves.

“If we can have user-generated blogs, videos, images and more, then why not petitions?,” Cumberbirch asks.

“As the tools to produce and promote campaigns improve and become more freely available to a wider range of people, we're likely to see more change locally, and with that more connected, powerful citizens at a neighbourhood and community level.”


Social enterprise Change.org allows the public to post online petitions in order to influence decision-makers. 

 

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