Do Petitions Work?
The Mumbai Marathon is organized annually, with as many as 50,000 people participating. In 2018, a petition was started on Change.org. It demanded that organizers reduce the number of disposable cups and switch to reusable cups. It took more than a 1 lakh signatures when the organizers decided that the Mumbai Marathon would strive to be more environmental-friendly. They pledged to reduce the use of more than 60,000 plastic water plants.
Another campaign was started on Change.org asking the Education Minister of Karnataka to implement various security measures in schools to make them safer when, in 2014, a 6-year old was sexually assaulted by a school staffer in Karnataka. After more than 150,000 signatures, the Karantaka government announced the issuance of several guidelines for schools and forming sexual harassment committies.
These examples illustrate how petitions remain an indispensable tool to represent the voices of the people. Petitioning has enabled political participation beyond the ranks of the elect and their electors, as they are a crucial site of representation between people and parliament.
What are Petitions?
The earliest petitions originated in Ancient Egypt, the slave workers in pharaonic times campaigned for better working conditions. No matter the time or place, the ultimate goal of a petition has remained the same. That is, to enact change.
Petitions are a vehicle of political messages. Throughout history, they were a principle device for exploring the public opinion, or the “will of the people.” In process, petitions helped attach importance to representation as “criteria of validity of opinions invoked in public debate.” Petitions cut across boundaries defined by geography, time and polity. They have one of the most important functions, of communication, a means to lobby an authority. The emergence of online petitions demonstrate the relevance of petitioning as a theme for democracies. They have been used to voice demands, and have taken diverse forms and served a number of functions in different contexts.
History has shown us that the right to reproach is important to justice. From the slave workers building the famed pyramids to Brazilian slaves campaigning for their rights. Petitions became an accepted institution, voicing demands and eliciting legislation. These were, rightly so, demands for the redressement of injustices. Petitioning was the only means by which parliamentarians could begin to understand what the nation thought.
Understanding Social Media Activism
An online petition demanding justice for George Floyd gathered more than 18 million signatures. More than 2.2 million people signed a petition calling for the arrest of George Zimmerman who shot Trayvon Martin. There were more than 500,000 signatures when TripAdvisor announced changes to how it handles reports of sexual assault. There are hundreds of petitions online calling for change in issues ranging from healthcare to animal rights, from social justice to quality education.
Petitions do a number of things. They provide a sense of where the public opinion lies. Most importantly, petitions create a sense that public opinion mattered. Even when petitions remained unsuccessfully, petitioners forced politicians and big organizations to respond to their arguments. To overlook or to reject the petitions is to undermine both the cause and the caused.
In The Second Act of Social Media Activism, Jane Hu writes that what we’re witnessing feels like an exceptionally “online” moment of social unrest. And maybe that is what is needed. This moment of unrest, even if it brings no immediate direct outcome, it has an important role to play in the way we understand the world and enact change. The Internet has grown massively, especially when it comes to mediating change.
What is The Theory of Change and What Does it Mean for Online Petitions?
We must create a culture of change. Online petitions are only one part of that. They help raise awareness of an issue. There are more reasons to gather a petition other than seeking a change in policy. Online social media campaigns produce political momentum and if we can build on that, we are a step closer to our goals.
You might have heard of the “Theory of Change.” It essentially illustrates how and why a desired change is expected to happen. It is focused on mapping out what has described as the “missing middle.” We must identify the conditions that must be in place such that the desired long-term goal is achieved. Through this approach, we can understand how some activities will lead to some goals. Theory of Change encourages better planning and better evaluation. The identification of program outputs is the key to running a successful petition, too.
How Does it Work?
Today, there is an online petition for almost anything to literally everything – passing bills, gender equality, human rights. It is very easy to create an online petition. Anyone can do that, sitting at home, from their beds. All it takes is the click of a button, with websites like Change.org reportedly having several hundreds of new petitions everyday on its platform.
One petition will not save the world. We must engage with the community by converting online support to actions. Large scale campaigning, rallies, donation drives – the list is endless. A good example comes from Color of Change. Colour of Change is an online racial justice organization. It has been successful in pressuring Facebook to disallow white nationalist content to pushing GoFundMe to take down a page gathering donations for the men who killed Georgia Ahmaud Arbery. There is no one way of measuring success for petitions. For petitions to be effective, they must be paired with calls to actions carried out by both individuals and organizations alike.
What Can You Do?
We must take concrete actions to change, in order for any petition to be effective. A good petition that gets a lot of people engaged is already a step ahead in the right direction. Social change organizations can help push these petitions, gathering more support and strength in numbers. As has been said before, petitions are only one part of a campaign. Today, I request each one of you to join the good fight. At the end of the day, a petition needs ongoing support and leadership and that comes from us. I hope you care enough to sign that one petition and hopefully change the word for the better, one small step at a time.