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Why Signing That Online Petition Doesn't Make You an Activist

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What “counts” when it comes to activism? Is there a minimum level of engagement that needs to take place before you can legitimately say you did something to help a cause? And if so, should signing an online petition count?
Art by Allie of Hyperbole and a Half
Online petitions have evolved from a revolutionary tactic to just one more standard component of public campaigns. They can be used as a straw poll to measure engagement and public sentiment for a particular cause. They can be used to draw media attention to a particular issue. They can also be used as an easy way to convince people to share their contact information with your organization. And once that information is shared, it can be sold, which is why people who tend to sign online petitions tend to start getting emails from a lot of non-profits and political groups.
Hell, I get about a dozen requests to sign one every day. I get them because I sometimes sign them, if I am so moved. However, I’m under no illusion that I’m actually doing a damn thing.
The only thing I’ll accomplish is to boost some organizer or staffer’s numbers needed to meet their weekly goal. I’ve made less of a commitment to a cause than if I had “liked” a Facebook page.
And you know what’s worse? I don’t even share a link to the petition afterward, because the sense of embarrassment I get from the thought of telling people I was stupid enough to sign my contact information away for a microsecond of “good feels” is far more powerful than whatever guilt trip request I am immediately emailed as soon as I’ve clicked the “Sign” button. But enough about my gullibility; let’s talk about why I should know better (and why you should, too).
I would love to provide you with statistical information or results from rigorous studies about the effectiveness and increase in usage of online petitions over the past decade. However, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of data readily available, or at least not if you don’t want to get your information directly from the sites like Change.org and a bevy of other “digital activism” sites which peddle their usage.
Petition websites can be found far and wide, but the leader of the pack is Change.org. Founded in 2007 by Ben Rattray, Change.org is a for-profit business that provides software for individuals to start a petition and promote it. But it is the organizations looking to benefit from Change.org’s user data that provide the income which has made Change.org such a powerhouse. From Forbes November 5, 2012 issue:

“Change.org charges groups for the privilege of sponsoring petitions that are matched to users who have similar interests. For example, when a person signs a petition about education and clicks “submit,” a box pops up and shows five sponsored petitions on education to also sign. If a user leaves a box checked that says “Keep me updated on this campaign and others,” the sponsor can then send e-mails directly to that person. It’s not clear from the check box that your e-mail address is being sold to a not-for-profit. Rattray says an imminent site redesign will make the company’s business model more transparent. “

Whether that transparency has carried over to the people duped into signing away their contact information remains to be seen. Of course, not all online petition websites sell their users’ data. But they’re probably not as widely used by your friends and relatives with a pet cause, either.
We all know of online petition campaigns that were successful. 14-year-old Julia Bluhm started a petition to get Seventeen Magazine to change it’s “over-use” of Photoshop, and the magazine did eventually make a public announcement that it would “feature only photographs of real girls and models who are healthy.”
Teenagers Katy Butler and Carson Borbely started a petition to get the MPAA to downgrade the R-rating for the documentary “Bully,” and with some celebrity and congressional support, the MPAA conceded.
And 28-year-old Kevin Cunningham started a petition calling for the arrest of George Zimmerman after he learned about the situation that resulted in Trayvon Martin’s death. Zimmerman was arrested and charged with 2nd degree murder, though he was eventually cleared of all charges.
All of these campaigns were successful, but was that because of the online petitions that spurred the initial media attention or was it the larger campaigns waged by organizers through media outreach? That might seem like splitting hairs, but I think it’s an important distinction to make. I don’t believe that any of these campaigns would have gotten media attention as quickly as they did without the public support demonstrated by the number of signatures they gathered, but I do believe that these campaigns could have all eventually been successful without the aid of an online petition.
It is a tool, but it is not a silver bullet, and a petition is not to be equated with a campaign in and of itself.
A campaign is made up of people actively taking action to promote a cause of some kind. Signing an online petition is “taking action” in the same way that “liking” a photograph on Facebook is a critique of its composition.
It’s not the same thing.
If a you share a video and it later goes viral, do you tout your power of influence on the interwebs and claim responsibility for the video’s success? You can, but you’ll be laughed at. The same scorn should be reserved for people who post a link to a campaign that other people put actual work into and claim to share the victory because they clicked on a button in an email three months ago.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t sign any online petition ever again. They can be effective when paired with a strong media or boots-on-the-ground campaign. But think before you click.
What is the petition going to be used for? Is it part of a wider campaign, or is it simply a list of names that will be sent in a strongly-worded email to be deleted from some politician or CEO’s inbox? If it is going to be part of a larger campaign, is there something else you could do? Chances are that there is, or it’s not a real campaign and you shouldn’t be adding legitimacy to fake campaigns. (Unless it’s for a hilarious cause.)
If you click the “Sign” button on an online petition, and that is the extent of your involvement with the campaign and the campaign succeeds, you have no right to any feelings of sharing in that success. You have a right to be happy about the success of the campaign, and to share the news with others. But you don’t have the right to claim you helped the campaign. That is reserved for the people who put time or money or effort into a campaign – making calls, writing letters, visiting lawmakers, or even waving signs by the side of the road.
You can sign all of the online petitions you want for one cause or many. But don’t dare try to claim you actually did something about it.