Digital times call for digital measures. We have digital banking, digital shopping, digital learning, and yes, even people power and activism have taken the digital route. Prior to the internet revolution, people had to take to the streets to voice out their concerns and demands. But now, there are digital platforms that serve as a venue for thousands of people to come together under a common cause via online petitions. Also known as digital activism, different groups of people rally behind various causes, from social justice issues right through to environmental concerns. But, do these online petitions really work? Can they really make a difference?
Read on as we scrutinize the effectiveness of online petitions in today’s world.
Is it activism or slacktivism?
We are living in the digital age and as with all things digital, activism has found its way online. There are those who argue that this poses fewer risks since petitioners just have to click a button to rally behind a cause, leading some critics to label it as slacktivism. But the power of these digital campaigns lies in their ease and accessibility. They can be created effortlessly and are easily shareable across different social media platforms, which can help generate support, momentum, and social impact.
With the power of social media, petition organizers can reach a global audience and tap into the energy of the collective. This is where petitions can serve a worthy purpose. Online petitions have the power to let government officials know the public’s opinion on certain matters. They can help garner the attention of the press and mainstream media to spotlight an issue. They can also activate people who can be considered passive allies. Digitaal petitions can also be a stepping stone for further action on a broader campaign, and raise money, attract talent volunteers and other resources needed to support the cause.
Sign here and help save the world
There are various e-petitioning websites such as Change.org, The Petition Site, Go Petition, and SumOfUs – all of which have the intention of helping enact change in our world. These sites have made starting an online petition extremely easy; an individual or group is only really required to write a letter explaining the issue and the desired outcome or call to action. Then, it’s published on the petition site of choice, is promoted on different social platforms to reach the target audience and shared to relevant media and influential individuals. Those who support the cause just have to click a button to sign the petition. They also have the option to explain why they support the issue, share their contact details with the organizers so that they can receive updates regarding the campaign and can even donate to the issue to help amplify the message.
The downside of online petitions is the click and send effect. As petitioners aim for numbers, there is a notion of quantity over quality. Some people don’t use their real names when signing digital petitions which cause others to question the legitimacy of these causes. Given that they are also easy to set up, some petitions are seen as a joke or frivolous, far from its true nature and cause.
Another drawback is the good deed syndrome. Some people think that by signing a petition, they have already done their part to “save the world”. The main question is how many among those who signed really took the time to learn more about the issue at hand?
The triumphs of online petitions
Despite their drawbacks, there have been many successful online petitions originating in many different parts of the world. If you’re one of those people wondering if these digital petitions actually work, here are some recent examples of how they have effected change on businesses, legislations, and other concerned agencies they are directed to.
The #PayUp campaign launched by ethical fashion advocacy group Remake to support those most vulnerable in the fashion industry – garment workers – have been instrumental in getting global fashion brands to pay for their completed and in-production orders. These brands initially refused to pay clothing manufacturers for their orders citing the plunge in sales and low demand for apparel during the COVID-19 pandemic. The petition has helped unlock over $22 billion of wages to be paid to manufacturers – much of which are owed to garment workers who are on the brink of hunger and poverty. As Remake’s founder Ayesha Barenblat explained to Vogue:
“These brands’ change in position illustrates the power of activists and citizens coming together to hold the fashion industry accountable.”
In the US, a UPS employee who was fired because she voiced her concerns regarding occupational safety during this pandemic, got her job back with the support of 80,000 people via a Change.org petition. Then there was the restaurant chain Ruth’s Chris Steak House which was held accountable to pay back the $20 million federal rescue loan that it received (intended to help small businesses survive the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic) after more than 260,000 people signed the petition calling out the fact that itts owner, Ruth’s Hospitality Group Inc, doesn’t actually qualify as a small business.
In the Philippines, government health insurance agency Philhealth mandated overseas filipino workers to pay higher health premiums, an amount equivalent to three percent of their annual salaries, at the onset of the pandemic. An online petition was launched and garnered more than 464,000 signatures, prompting the country’s president to order the suspension of the collection of higher premiums and make the payments voluntary instead.
These are just some examples that show what digital people power can do to make big companies accountable, pressure government officials to act, bring about social justice and ensure significant change in our world.
The first step to social consciousness
Not all online petitions are successful however. There are millions of online petitions that fall on deaf ears and no action is taken to effect social change. Regardless, one cannot take away the fact that many petitions have raised public awareness regarding the issues that they bring forward. The associate director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center on Digital Culture and Society, Rosemary Clark-Parsons, tells CNN, “Learning about an issue through an online petition or other digital campaign can lead folks to do further research and reading online, which can lead to higher levels of involvement and commitment.” This is where hope springs. This can be the beginning of something more substantial than merely signing. As people’s social consciousness is raised, it can inspire more participation, engagement and action from fellow supporters on how to resolve an issue.
Do more than just sign
For an online petition to be truly effective, it still has to transcend the digital domain. More action is needed than just adding one’s name to a long list of online petitioners. There has to be a corresponding action offline. Concerned folk should take time to research and study the issues better. People can organize protest rallies and demonstrations with their local community. Getting in touch with authorities via phone, written letter or scheduling a meeting to make your voice heard loud and clear is another way to move from the online world into the offline realm.
So next time you’re asked to sign an online petition or back a digital social justice or online climate action campaign, make sure you don’t just lend your signature for the sake of beefing up the numbers. For lasting change to happen, you have to do more than just signing. If you truly believe in the cause and want to achieve forward momentum, consider how you can bring about real change in the real world.
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Cover image by McLittle Stock.