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To sign a petition, you used to need to show up to a town hall and physically sign a sheet of paper to demonstrate your support. But today, online petitions are the popular way to show your support for a cause. They’re easy to make: just draft it up, send it around your social media feeds, and wait for the signatures to roll in. If you get enough, forward the list to the decision-makers, and you’ve changed the world! Right?

Maybe not. You shouldn’t waste your time on a petition if it won’t work, so we need to examine that. I’ve been investigating online petitioning to find out if e-signatures are a worthwhile mechanism for change. Why? Because it turns out petitioning can be a complex affair – and even if you can get the requisite number of e-signatures, they may not even be worth the bytes the characters take up.

Some people dismiss online petitioning as merely slacktivism, no better than hashtag activism Hashtag Activism: #powerful or #pointless? Hashtag Activism: #powerful or #pointless? #BringBackOurGirls, #ICantBreathe, and #BlackLivesMatter have seen wide international coverage in the past year – but are hashtags an effective means of activism? Read More . However, certain e-petitions can make a difference. To find out which ones can work, let’s start by taking a look at the different platforms on offer.

Official Online Petitioning Platforms

How you should run an e-petition depends on where you live, the people to whom your petition is addressed, and where the issue is. A petition on the wrong platform, or to the wrong people, or signed by people who live outside of the relevant jurisdiction, is a total waste of time.

e-Petitioning in the United States

For Americans, the right to petition the government  is enshrined in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. If you want to petition the Obama Administration to change the law or redress grievances, the place to create your petition is We the People, the White House’s very own platform for change.

whitehouse-petitions

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On the We the People site, you’ll find recent responses to popular petitions, and 90 petitions open for signing (as of the time of this writing), across 39 different topics. If a petition meets the signature threshold of 150 signatures in 30 days, it will be searchable within WhiteHouse.gov. If the petition reaches 100,000 signatures in the next 30 days, the White House will arrange an official response within 60 days.

we-the-people-responses

The kinds of petitions We the People accepts is somewhat limited. From their Terms of Participation, you can only petition the Administration “to address a problem, support or oppose a proposal, or otherwise change or continue federal government policy or actions.

So what does that leave out? We the People does not accept “petitions that advertise or call for the endorsement or purchase of commercial goods or services, petitions that expressly urge the support or opposition of candidates for elected office, petitions that do not address the current or potential actions or policies of the federal government, or petitions that address a topic not included in We the People at the time the petition was created.

e-Petitioning in the United Kingdom

British citizens and United Kingdom residents can petition their government online through the UK’s own online petitioning website.

petition-uk-parliament

They have their own set of standards for acceptable petitions. Provided a petition there meets them all and receives over 10,000 signatures, it will receive an official response from the government. With over 100,000 signatures, the issue will be considered for parliamentary debate. There are currently 1,397 open petitions on the UK Petition site.

Here is a sample of some of the most popular ones.

open-petitions-uk

e-Petitioning in Canada

For Canadian petitioners, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is, so far, online petitions are only valid in the province of Quebec and the Northwest Territories. The Federal Government requires all original signatures on paper. The good news is, according to the CBC, digital petitions will be valid in Canada from the day the House of Commons sits after the federal general election on October 19 this year.

The platform to run a petition for the Canadian House of Commons doesn’t exist yet, but when it is up, petitions hosted there will require a minimum of 500 signatures to be considered in the House of Commons and receive an official government response.

Petitioning Other Groups

As we saw with the Terms of Participation for We the People, there were lots of petition formats they don’t accept. And what about petitions for other groups, like corporations? These kinds of petitions be hosted on other sites. One such petitioning platform we’ve looked at in 2011 Take a Stand & Make a Difference on Any Issue With iPetitions Take a Stand & Make a Difference on Any Issue With iPetitions The petition, as a vehicle for influencing change, has been a tool used by activists throughout the world for many years. Way before the Internet even existed, activists hit the streets with printed petition. Because... Read More  is iPetitions. Since then, Change.org has become one of the most popular petitioning platforms.

change

Change.org hosts petitions in hundreds of countries for more than 120 million people. Change.org provides a set of Guides for your petition’s success, from growing your support base, to getting media coverage, to delivering your petition.

Successful e-Petitions

Spotting a successful e-petition is trickier than a site like Change.org will make it seem. Change.org allows creators to mark petitions with Victory, but you can’t always confirm that the petition is what made the difference.

Remember how we talked about e-petitions not being valid in Canada? That didn’t stop Canadian man Tyler Doose from petitioning on Change.org to have the Government of Canada ban microbeads.

microbeads-petition

The petition urged Environment Canada to ban microbeads – but Environment Canada doesn’t work that way. They don’t just ban or allow things because so many people ask them to. Environment Canada banned microbeads not because of the petition, but because they reviewed 130 scientific papers that made it clear that the plastic beads aren’t degrading – they’re making their way throughout the ecosystem and the food chain, with unpredictable consequences.

So you might be asking, “What’s the deal here?” The answer is, petitions are about more than just how many signatures they can amass. They’re about getting groups of people together, united with one voice, and making a reason for decision-makers to listen – even if it is informal. A petition like that helped to put some attention on the issue of heinous microbeads, and shows Canadian support, but we cannot know exactly what difference it made because Environment Canada was addressing the issue anyway.

Challenges of Online Petitions

Writer Emma Howard brought up a major concern for online petitions in an article for The Guardian in 2014. Referring to Directgov, the old name for the UK’s petitioning website, she says, “Even in the rare case of success, the person who started the petition has no way to inform those who signed it, never mind mobilise this mass base of supporters to take a campaign forward.” 

That’s a problem because change can take more than a petition. Sometimes you need supporters to take more action, and that’s hard to do if you don’t have a way to rally them in the event a petition falls just short, or if it takes more action to make change than just a debate.

Another concern she brings up for online petitions is that, “When thousands of people put their name to a cause on Directgov, this data becomes the sole property of the government – whose very actions they are challenging.” To me this veers on conspiracy theory. However, all the more reason to follow your petitions closely and track their success. 

Just One Item in The Toolkit

I’m not going to spend a lot of time debating whether a digital signature is as meaningful as a handwritten one (though there are many ways to digitize your signature Microsoft And DocuSign Join Hands To Bring Digital Signatures To Office 365 Microsoft And DocuSign Join Hands To Bring Digital Signatures To Office 365 The eSignature service DocuSign has inked a partnership with Microsoft that should allow Office 365 users to stamp their documents with eSignatures within the Office platform. The feature will enhance the workflow for Office 365... Read More ), when it’s so easy to spread a digital petition. The fact is, different groups can assign them different value, and petitions are just one item in a toolkit full of different options you have to get engaged. Here are 5 great websites to make a difference 5 Websites To Lend A Hand & Make A Difference To The World 5 Websites To Lend A Hand & Make A Difference To The World Read More in the world for example.

So the lesson here is, if you’re going to start an online petition, give it a fighting shot by doing it right, and don’t stop there. If you sign a petition, check back later to see how it’s doing. Consider setting yourself a reminder in your calendar, to-do app, or in your Google Inbox Google Inbox Review: A Breath Of Fresh Air Google Inbox Review: A Breath Of Fresh Air Gmail is a household name in the email department, but Google wasn't content with it. Meet Google Inbox, a new way of approaching email. Read More  that you’ll receive towards the end-date of your favorite petitions.

If you’re lucky enough to live in a democracy (even if your country has a first-past-the-post electoral system), vote every chance you get. There are lots of great ways to learn about candidates online, like how this set of tools for UK citizens Decide Who to Vote for in the UK General Election Decide Who to Vote for in the UK General Election On May 7th, the British people will go to the polls and decide who will be governing the country for the next five years. Are you an undecided voter unsure where to put the cross? Read More  helps uncover political leanings. Outside of election season, volunteer. Visit your local community center. Write to your local representatives to complain (or to thank them if they do right by your wishes). Attend protests that you agree with.

Do you think online petitions are worthwhile? Let us know by commenting below. And while you’re at it, feel free to share your other favorite ways to make a difference – or tell us about the online petitions you’ve signed.

  1. Shelley Holford
    November 18, 2016 at 11:52 pm

    I sign petitions all the time then post for my friends to 'sign and share' but the only people who will do it are over 65! What's up with that?

  2. Magnus
    April 9, 2016 at 6:09 pm

    That people should mobilize and go on a demonstration is often not realistic and you wouldn't get the support of as many people as yould with an online petition. Of course online petitions don't make an automatic change, but they can make governmental departments and companies think about the reputation they're giving themselves. Bad rep. means fewer customers for companies and fewer tourists for countries. You don't think there are a lot of people like me who won't go to South Korea or China because of how they treat dogs? I learned about what they're doing through online petitions.

    Look at PETA's success stories they can get with their huge number of signatures on their WEBSITE and the success stories that Care2 write about in official e-mails and site articles.

    What I'm concerned about is what role geography plays. Is it any point that I skgn a petition asking Tesco to stop buying meat from a certain butcher, when I live in Sweden and Tesco isn't established here? Is it any point in me signing a petition urging a city in South Korea to stop holding a dog meat festival there? What signatures and petitions are automatically dismissed, if any, and if so, by what entities or in what countries?

  3. A41202813GMAIL ..
    November 3, 2015 at 12:37 pm

    In Third World Countries ( Not To Mention All The Countries ), OnLine Petitions Are Unfair, Because The Little Guy Does Not Have Enough Money/Skill/Knowledge/Whatever To Buy ( Let Alone Maintain ) Or Use A Computer.

    Any OnLine Vote Just Reflects The Will Of The Middle Class.

    Last Time I Checked, They Are Not Exactly The Majority.

    Cheers.

    • Jessica Coccimiglio
      November 8, 2015 at 10:11 am

      Online petitions aren't being voted on though. All they need to do is reach a minimum threshold before they'll be considered - and it doesn't stop old-fashioned paper petitions from being spread around either.

      • A41202813GMAIL ..
        November 8, 2015 at 8:08 pm

        You Are Kidding, Right ?

        Comparing Paper Petitions With Electronic Ones ?

        Cheers.

  4. Roger Oveur
    October 27, 2015 at 5:11 pm

    Of course petitions from "the people" don't accomplish anything in this day and age, online or off. Even mass mobilization is a useless neutered force in the face of an ever-encroaching police state (Occupy Wall Street, anyone?). Democracy is dead, replaced by global oligarchy. Your vote costs nothing and is therefore worth nothing compared to the immense lobbying power of multinational corporations and "nonprofit organizations" that exist to promote profit and the bottom line.

    That's why Greenpeace doesn't get anywhere: environmental responsibility cuts into the profits of fossil fuel manufacturers. Particularly oil companies, which are inextricably tied to the corrupt and sinister Saudi regime that is such a disgusting human-rights violator it makes the Reich look like "Horrible Bosses." Good luck getting a BDS going on behalf of persecuted dissidents in Riyadh -- as long as the U.S. and Western economies continue to be based on the petrodollar, corrupt, business-owned politicians will pay lip service to issues of women's rights and political persecution in the Middle East, while their loony stooges on college campuses wearing Che Guevara T-shirts and picketing about micro-aggressions serve this agenda by complaining that anti-Saudi protests are "Islam-phobic" -- totally not getting the bigger picture.

    People can't even get anywhere protesting changes to the democracy of the Internet, namely TPP, TTIP and CISPA. The Internet is run by big businesses -- mega-startups like Facebook, Twitter, and the monolithic Google, media-conglomerated ISPs like Comcast NBC Universal Viacom and Verizon AOL Time Warner Huffington Post, and uber-media technology partnerships like Disney Apple Pixar Marvel Henson LucasArts. Those big businesses in turn influence the political process through expensive lobbying of Congress and the parliaments of Asia and Europe. There's an old saying, "freedom ain't free" -- in fact, it's very expensive, too expensive for the "little guy" to afford a louder microphone than the ones who have deep pockets to afford a Surround Sound PA system. Technology has not leveled the playing field. It's just given the illusion that it coulda, shoulda, woulda.

  5. Rob Nightingale
    October 27, 2015 at 4:05 am

    38degrees is also pretty influential (at least here in the uk). They recently forced Las Iguanas, a restaurant chain, to stop an unfair tips policy across all of their stores. They also take some credit for getting Jeremy Clarkson sacked, after 38,000 people showed their support for the action to the BBC.

    • Jessica Coccimiglio
      November 8, 2015 at 10:14 am

      Thanks for the tip, Rob! Sometimes a good petition really is just about showing someone there is a lot of support for change to a policy they may not have thought about - and it would be way, way harder to get 38000 people to sign in person, that's for sure.

  6. likefun butnot
    October 26, 2015 at 2:19 pm

    The American People overwhelmingly told We the People that we want a Death Star. I note we are still under constant terrorist threat from Alderaan, Yavin 4 and the forest moon of Endor.

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