Online petitions are nearly a dime a dozen these days. Still, it's hard to resist the simple act of signing and clicking on one that seems worth your precious minute or two. But does that little extra effort at your keyboard really making a difference?
We decided to look further into the role of online petitions and whether they can be an important catalyst to real change. What we found shouldn't be all that shocking: While petitions can raise awareness of an issue, nearly all fail to go anywhere beyond building a long list of signatures. At most, they serve as a great way for advocacy organizations to get your name and email for fundraising purposes.
So, if online petitions don't work, how can we make sure our voices are heard in Congress? Let's dig deeper.
The Reality of Online Petitions in Advocacy
Proponents of petitions assert that they help build an audience interested in a specific issue. In fact, petitions can be effective in simply bringing an issue to someone's attention. As signatures accumulate and a strong, united voice is formed, the media may even catch on and help spread awareness of an issue even further. Surely, hundreds of thousands of signatures can make quite a bold statement, right? Not necessarily.
A study from Pew Research Center examined the petition site "We The People," which allowed Americans to sign petitions to the Obama Administration. They concluded that "petitions have limited legislative impact," finding only "three instances where petitions led to concrete policy outcomes," even though there were a total of 38.5 million signatures on more than 473,000 distinct petitions.
Petitions Do Not Work In Other Countries Too
And this isn't strictly an American problem—similar results have been found across the pond. Amelia Tait of the New Statesmen looked at an online petition in 2017 that garnered nearly 1.3 million signatures. The petition called for a ban on President Trump from entering the U.K. Of course, that didn't go far. So, she looked into this more, finding that not one of the top 10 most-shared campaigns on the Parliament's official petitions website ever got close to reaching its intended goal.
As Tait sums up, "Though many might argue that such campaigns are instrumental in raising awareness, they arguably also allow people to feel as though they have taken action when they haven't, potentially preventing individuals from pursuing more hands-on activism." This is exactly how the term "slacktivism" made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary.
The Case of the Interested Bystander
Perhaps a nicer name for a "slacktivist" is an "interested bystander." In a Harvard-affiliated study led by Kate Krontiris, the civic researcher and strategist found that nearly half—48.9 percent—of the U.S. adult population is made up of "interested bystanders." These are people who pay attention to issues and value civic engagement, but aren't so keen on acting on it.
They will, however, happily sign a petition, even if it doesn't seem all that meaningful of an action to them. But after offering up their John Hancock, they're unsure of what to do next. According to Krontiris, many "have trouble identifying civic actions that lie between signing a petition (which many already do) and launching a social movement (which their busy lives prohibit)." If you consider her stats, we can estimate that half of all signatures come from people not willing to put in the work.
But What If You're Ready for Action?
For those not satisfied with just signing and sitting back, a petition can still feel like an important first step. Even if half of a petition's signees don't plan on engaging with the issue any further, there's still plenty of people willing to step up. But bringing together and mobilizing these eager individuals is the tricky part.
What stops most petitions in their tracks is a lack of leadership, a clear target, and a specific strategy for action. Action is not guaranteed—and is rarely implemented—once you've added your name to a petition. That signature itself has very little influence on your elected official.
The opposite can be said for executives of large corporations, however. While petitions may have little effect on Congress, they can certainly make a dent when it comes to a company that sells to consumers. Petitioning a company to change its business practices usually gets the attention of its executives—bad publicity can directly damper sales. Unfortunately, pushing your cause through the twisted, tangled world of the government is much more difficult.
From Slacktivism to Real Activism
As mentioned here, real civic change requires much more than a group of individuals with a common goal—you need those signees to be (and stay) engaged, as well as political opportunity and organizational infrastructure.
In general, signing a petition is not an effective way to influence anyone who can help you realize those last two points.
This is where Lobbyists 4 Good can help. Instead of posting and sharing a petition that will likely go nowhere beyond cyberspace, people on our website immediately take action by donating to lobbying campaigns.
Once a lobbying campaign raises $5,000, one of our lobbyists begin to lobby Congress about your issue. We bring your concerns straight to the elected officials that can turn your idea and passion into reality. This is something you can't get from a signature—even millions of them.
Billy DeLancey is the Co-founder and CEO of Lobbyists 4 Good.