Online Petitions: How Effective Are They?

Swipe up and sign this petition—a phrase we have all become too familiar with. This single phrase has dominated social media platforms, but why?

Why? We live in a new era that intertwines both social media and activism. Since the death of George Floyd last May and the beginning of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, many new injustices in America have been documented through the use of social media. As the whole world is now able to see these injustices occur through their phones, many ask themselves how can they help. Well, a new era of activists have found a solution: online petitions. Many have started linking and sharing these activist petitions through social media sites such as Instagram and Snapchat. 

Through the use of these online petitions on websites (i.e. Change.org) millions of people have begun to sign petitions in order to free wrongfully imprisoned people, push for change or creation of certain laws, demand arrests of certain individuals, and more. For example, the online petition demanding justice for George Floyd has accumulated more than 18 million signatures. With such a powerful platform, what exactly do these petitions do and how effective are they really

According to CNN, there is no true measure of success for petitions. This is due to the fact that in order for these petitions to be effective, they are paired with dozens of more actions carried out by drafters of the petition and the signers themselves . The petition can allow these online activists to research certain issues and take more action than just signing an online petition. 

The main effect of a petition, according to the Washington Post, is not to persuade its recipients, but rather recruit new people to a cause. Petitions can have a long-term organizational legacy even if their short-term policy effect is zero.

Well, aren’t these petitions just a modern way to be an activist?

Petitions are not a new concept. Upon the eve of the American Revolution, ideas of liberty and freedom echoed through slave communities. Many enslaved people and anti-slavery advocates demanded freedom. They began spreading “freedom petitions,” which are now regarded as the first concrete steps towards emancipation. In the early 1770s, these petitions were presented to New England’s courts and legislatures insisting that “even an African [had] as equally good a right to his liberty in common with Englishmen” (Foner). Black enslaved people and anti-slavery advocates created petitions, pamphlets, and sermons demanding freedom for the enslaved. 

Yet, as seen throughout history, these petitions had little effect on the freedom of slaves as slavery remained long after the American Revolution. They did, however, invoke the idea of universal entitlement set the stage for black enslaved people to demonstrate how American they have become and their united vision of liberty. These petitions acted as a catalyst for talks about abolition, racism, and more injustice practices and values instilled in America.

Aren’t these petitions just a way for people to be a “performative activist”?

First, let’s define performative activism:

Performative Activism—activism that is done to increase one’s social capital rather than because of one’s devotion to a cause. 

Performative activists do simple tasks, like reposting an instagram infographic, to benefit them socially and make them be perceived as more “aware”. Performative activists are not spreading information, donating, marching, or even signing petitions to aid communities/individuals in need but rather for their own benefit.

Signing and passing around an online petition doesn’t constitute a person being a “performative activist”–their actions do. Are they spreading information/petitions because they care and want to help or are they doing it to be seen as socially conscious and not seem hostile towards those communities? The answer lies within their intent.

If they really want to make an impact on certain issues and avoid being a “performative activist” they have to do more than just spread a petition. Performative activism is just that: a performance, and in order to overcome that they must apply themselves to social change even when no one is looking. They can donate money to certified organizations if they have the financial means, protest (in a COVID-safe manner), educate themselves on the issue, educate others, talks to those who are facing the issues at hand, and engage in local mutual aid.

Petitions are just the first step. These online petitions need the help of bigger organizations and interest groups, like the National Hispanic Media Coalition or the National LGBTQ Task Force, to create impactful, concrete change. Now, this “change” may be as small as a local company hiring a diversity officer or a court of law overturning a prison sentence. Petitions alone won’t make great change—connections and actions will. 

I leave you with this: will you swipe up and sign the petition?

Sources:

Ashe, Lauren. “The Dangers of Performative Activism.” VOX ATL, 25 June 2020, voxatl.org/the-dangers-of-performative-activism/.

Carpenter, Daniel. “Analysis | Yes, Signing Those Petitions Makes a Difference – Even If They Don’t Change Trump’s Mind.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 18 Apr. 2019, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/02/03/yes-signing-those-petitions-makes-a-difference-even-if-they-dont-change-trumps-mind/.

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History , BRIEF FIFTH EDITION, W.W. Norton and Company, 2017.

“Freedom of Petition.” Bill of Rights Institute, billofrightsinstitute.org/resources/freedom-of-petition.

Maxouris, Christina. “Online Petitions Work Best When You Do More than Just Sign.” CNN, Cable News Network, 23 June 2020, http://www.cnn.com/2020/06/23/us/do-online-petitions-work-trnd/index.html.

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