Online Campaigning Part 3: Does It Work?

Editor’s note: Read “Online Campaigning Part 1: Big and Evolving” and “Online Campaigning Part 2: Governments Get Into Online Activism” in this series.

Last week The New York Times carried an opinion piece picking up on one of the most popular online petitions on the White House-hosted We the People platform.

The petition, with some 142,000 signatories, calls on the president to “position yourself against the Bolivarian communist expansion in Brazil promoted by the administration of Dilma Rousseff.”

It was an example of the potential for online petitions to drive public discussion. Intriguingly, it also appeared to be written (and presumably largely supported) by Brazilians rather than U.S. citizens, highlighting the sometimes murky issue of whose constituents are supporting particular causes.

Penetrating the legislative sphere

On occasion, online petitions have penetrated through to the legislative sphere. An example is the petition started in January 2013 on We the People calling on the Obama administration to “make unlocking cell phones legal.” The petition gained the requisite 100,000 signatures to generate an official White House response and the administration moved to support it. By July 2014, the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act passed both chambers unanimously and was signed by the president in August.

Community level results

More frequently petitions deliver results at a community level. Take the case of Travis Beasley, a parent in Western Australia. In March 2012 he launched an online petition to save three trees the state Education Department was planning to chop down on a public reserve adjoining a local primary school. Travis managed to attract just 399 signatures to his petition, with a community website revealing just how local this campaign was:

Mr. Beasley said he recognized most of the names on the petition. “They’re mostly parents or local community members who are really concerned about this issue,” he said. “Every time the petition is signed, an email is sent to the Education Minister Liz Constable, so the more signatures we get the more she is aware of how strongly the local community want to protect these trees.”

Travis’s local member in the State Parliament also raised the petition with the authorities. The trees survived.

The Travis example is not an isolated instance. Petition behemoth lists pages worth of successes. While many of these did not occur solely because of a petition, there are clear examples where this has been helpful.

Most are not successful

Given a lack of research and the multitude of influencers on any political issue, it is hard to assess the precise influence of online petitions. What is apparent is that most are not successful. While We the People has generated more than 350,000 petitions since it launched in 2011, most have not gone anywhere.

A clever analysis of 19,789 petitions that ran on the U.K. Cabinet Office e-petition site between August 2011 and February 2013 found half received only one signature and only 5 percent received more than 500 signatures. A mere 0.7 percent received the 10,000 signatures mandated for an official response and 0.1 the 100,000 needed for a parliamentary debate.

The analysis of U.K. petitions found those that achieved most success did so over a very short time period, supporting the case for limited petitioning periods so the sites do not get cluttered and the importance for petitioners of achieving early traction. The study also revealed the role of social networking sites in disseminating petitions, with 50 percent of those who accessed the petition site coming from Facebook or Twitter.

A new dynamic to democracies

At a collective level, online campaigning has introduced a new dynamic to democracies. What is perhaps most intriguing about this new form of activism is the way it allows people to aggregate their voice to exert influence on decision makers outside traditional structures like trade unions and political parties. By opening petitioning up to anyone with an Internet connection, it offers everyone a new way to petition representatives or call-out a company that mistreats or annoys. The network effects of the petition sites and the ability of non-government run sites to promote a select number of campaigns has enhanced this new power.