Signing an online, electronic petition is the most popular form of online political activity within several democratic nations. Based on current research in the space, most online petitions fail to reach their goals and gather enough signatures to have an impact as they seem to be dependent on mass media coverage for success, therefore illustrating the importance of actively garnering media coverage when initiating a petition. As illustrated on the White House’s We The People petition platform, out of the 268 petitions that reached the signature threshold required for a response from the White House, only three concrete instances of a legislative outcome.
Other petition platforms, such as Change.org, may foster a false perception of activism where anyone can become an “interested bystander” for a particular cause where their “Slacktivism” main effect is to increase their own feel-good factor, rather than creating concrete impact on the cause. Online petition platforms like Change.org, by themselves, will induce attention towards a certain social issue and it is only when this attention is focused through an organized plan of action, change can be accomplished.
Activism vs. Slacktivism
Activism in itself is defined as the process by which groups of people exert pressure on organizations or other institutions to change policies, practices, or conditions activists find problematic. Traditionally, before the internet, activism was demonstrated through physical activities, such as strikes, boycotts, sit-ins, or letter writing. However, the advent of the internet has introduced forms of activism which can range from symbolic signaling of one’s political stance through changing a profile picture to complex interactions to mobilize awareness through user generated content. These online forms of activism are dubbed as “slacktivism” as it accompanies a lack of willingness to devote significant physical, mental, and collective effort to enact meaningful change. Questions have been raised regarding the efficacy of “slacktivism,” nevertheless there are certain advantages and disadvantages of these efforts.
Social Media Slacktivism & Attention
The role of social media platforms in influencing the social, political, and economic arenas of its users has transformed traditional, offline social action campaigns through providing a means of calling attention to social issues on the global stage. However, these platforms seem to have commodified this attention through equating meaningful support for a cause to clicks of a button, increasing arbitrary engagement metrics, such as likes, comments, shares, and signatures. Inherently, social media, built upon the web 2.0 framework, was not designed with the intent to convert attention to impact for social action campaigns through these engagement metrics, rather it’s centered upon reacting to personal user generated content, sharing information, and connecting virtually with one’s offline network. Thus, social media can foster a false perception of activism, known as “slacktivism,” where online participants can perform a relatively costless, token display of support for a social cause through engagement with these ineffective conversions.
However, social media provides a medium for individuals to express experiences and opinions, facilitates online communities to provide support and organize offline, and involves others outside their online community. The 2010 Arab Spring protests in Tunisia and Egypt utilized social platforms to spread information quickly, share information on freedom and liberty, and translate online participation into offline action. Most recently, the Black Lives Matter campaigns launched to protest racism and police violence against the African American community, have used platforms such as Twitter to share information through the “#Blacklivesmatter” hashtag.
Without a doubt, the power of social media to raise awareness for an issue is significant; however, the lack of organizational structure of online campaigns magnifies these issues and exposes the flaws of online collective action. For example, on June 2, 2020, social unrest over the death of George Floyd triggered approximately 28 million people to post plain black squares to Instagram as part of “#BlackoutTuesday,” seemingly to support Black Lives Matter. This “slacktivism” effort ultimately backfired as the posts drowned out organizing efforts and did not advance the cause in any significant way. The “#BlackoutTuesday” event illustrates the benefits social media provides, however it fails in the execution of converting the power of online collective action into actions that will substantially progress the campaign. The fundamental reason why this conversion fails is due to the fact that social media platforms are not equipped with the capabilities to direct this attention into an organized plan of action which centralizes campaign initiatives though quantitative, measurable goals.
A distinction must be made that social platforms divert excess attention, but attention on its own doesn’t necessarily ensure impact on the governmental level. The overall goal of a petition platform is to essentially bring attention to a social issue. Signing a petition online is not much different than simply “liking” a post on social media on the same issue, as the relative impact results in the increment in the engagement metric and participants will feel that they have supported the issue. This is why on Change.org, ninety-nine percent of petitions eventually fail because they are improperly organized, addressed, and executed, therefore actively silencing and disregarding those who express their support.
Issues with Petitions
When signing an online petition individuals are not required to provide their real name, age, or verification of identity before participating. This lack of verification inherently diminishes the power of a petition as their anonymous nature removes accountability. These platforms are providing an illusion of support by aggregating “unverified” signatures in which these participants may not hold the basic qualifications to contribute to the campaign any further. Furthermore, even if the anonymity issue is solved on such platforms, there is evidence to support that signature disclosure online discourages people from signing petitions as it may disclose one’s political preferences.
Furthermore, a petition itself creates an unequal power dynamic that constantly provides power to the party being petitioned, rather than the individuals petitioning. Once a petition is presented to the petitioned party, pressure is not exerted continuously to yield a response. The petitioned party can simply choose to ignore the petition as the underlying power of the “unverified” signatures is meaningless. In fact, on the White House’s We The People petition platform, refusal to comment on specific cases was common, occurring in 15% of all responses. It is only when this power dynamic is tipped in favor of the petitioners, as evidenced in Minocher’s study by applying constant scaled pressure to the opposing party to force change.
Petition platforms also do not provide the tools necessary to build a social action campaign from the ground up. Essentially, they do not create an organizational structure for campaigns, resulting in stakeholders failing to adequately analyze their approach, methods, and end goals when mobilizing support online. Without a strategic plan of action and goals to maintain sustainability within “slacktivist” culture, campaigns succumb to their unconverted attention.