Home Tips + Tricks Digital Activism 101: e-Petitions Edition

Why do people who criticize digital activism launching many of their attacks at e-petitions? About once a month an article appears in my feed reader with a title like “Real Change Means Getting Offline,” “The Revolution will not be Tweeted” or “A Critique of Clicktivism.” These articles are written with great seriousness by people who think they are the first to realize that, like offline activism, online and hybrid activism often doesn’t work. (Thanks for the insight). They also often target e-petitions.

Why and How Cyber-Skeptics Attack e-Petitions

These authors tend to focus on e-petitions because e-petitions may be the easiest digital activism tactic to implement, and require the least skill and time commitment. Anyone can set up an e-petition it in a few seconds with absolutely no strategic forethought. Based on this low bar to entry, it’s likely that e-petitions have a high failure rate (I’m hypothesizing here). As such, they are an appealing to cyber-pessimists and cyber-skeptics looking for an easy digital activism target. These polemicists set up this false syllogism:

The False Logic of e-Petition Attacks

  1. IF e-petitions = digital activism (This is false. In fact, digital activism encompasses a wide variety of tactics and tools, of which e-petitions are just one example)
  2. AND e-petitions are ineffective (This is false. Sometimes they are ineffective, sometimes they are effective. It depends on context.)
  3. THEN digital activism is ineffective (This is false. Even if e-petitions are often ineffective, they are but one example of digital activism. You cannot defeat the whole by defeating a part.)

Dissecting an e-Petition Attack

Yesterday’s editorial in The Stanford Daily, the university’s student newspaper, is an example of this type of attack. The article’s title, “Activism is More than Clicking a Button,” fits the cyber-pessimist paradigm perfectly in that it makes a statement that seems totally reasonable and at the same time grossly misrepresents what digital activism is. It defines its target, digital activism, as narrowly and weakly as possible (as “clicking a button”) in order to make it easier to knock down. In rhetoric, this is called building a “straw man argument” (portraying an opposing argument in weak terms so it is easier to defeat). It’s lazy and inaccurate.

Let’s look at how the article uses this misleading rhetorical trick to make it’s argument. The final sentence paragraph is “How effective is this new form of digital activism?” This is a totally reasonable question and an important one. However, the Editorial Board (no individual authors are named) are not asking the question directly, they are asking it rhetorically, which means they propose that the answer is evident. Since the answer to this question is not evident, how do they make it seem so? Here’s one sentence from the paragraph:

Change.org, one of the larger online sites for generating “e-petitions,” has a dizzying array of topics subject to online activism: Apple’s labor practices in China, MPAA movie ratings, North Korean refugees and more.

First of all, if you want to challenge the legitimacy of an idea, put it in quotes. We don’t put quotes around “e-mail,” so putting quotes around “e-petitions” is simply a rhetorical device to make the technology seem new and unproven. For example, I might write that the activists of the Occupy movement are seeking to create change. Or I could write that the “activists” of the Occupy “movement” are seeking to create “change.” It’s a nifty trick for making your target seem inherently questionable since the quotes imply the phrase “so-called”: The so-called activists of the so-called Occupy movement….you get the picture. The author also calls the array of petition options “dizzying” in order to make them seem chaotic and slightly addled.

Assigning Causation is Difficult in All Activism, Not Just Digital Activism

This article is more honest than most because it does provide arguments from the opposition:

Change.org certainly believes in the efficacy of online petitions: It cites a number of examples of petitions that have arguably led to companies and governments amending policies. For instance, after an online petition drive at Change.org and a mass exodus of customers, Bank of America decided not to implement a new $5 per month banking fee. Verizon similarly dropped a proposed $2 online payment fee after highly negative Internet coverage and 130,000 Change.org signatures.

Now, these are indeed cases of what would be considered successful e-petitions, but the authors don’t present the evidence in that way. They present this evidence as a “belief” of Change.org, not objective evidence that e-petitions can work.

They reason they give for being skeptical of this evidence is that it is unclear “how critical… the online petitions [were] in achieving these ends.” Now, maybe the authors do not understand this, but in many instances of activism it is unclear what tactic actually caused a given outcome. This is true of offline as well as online activism. The fact is simply that most social and political change outcomes are multi-causal. It wasn’t just the protest, it was also the decrease in oil prices, the elite lobbying, the dissent within the leader’s political party, the international pressure… again, you get the picture. The problem of assigning causation to a tactic does not mean the tactic was not successful, it means that causation is difficult to assign because multiple forces are at play. (Zeynep Tufekci’s has an excellent post on the problems of assigning causation in digital activism, for those who are interested).

Why Digital Activism is Likely to Increase – not Decrease – Engagement

The authors then take another page from the cyber-pessimist playbook, by referencing the buzzword slacktivism and stating:

Citizens who may have otherwise engaged in effective advocacy, such as writing their representatives or protesting, might instead feel content signing online petitions without realizing that each signature has a minimal effect on the policymaking process.

Now please, I beg you, show me one empirical study that demonstrates this dynamic. Show me one study that shows that digital technology makes politically active people less politically active. To me the more convincing argument is that social media activism, because it is so painfully easy to take (yes, by clicking to join a group or sign a petition) would make the biggest impact by engaging the previously inactive and politically apathetic, since it provides the smallest incremental step between doing something and doing nothing.

It is then up to online organizers to mobilize these people up the ladder of engagement to more and more meaningful activism. As Amy Sample Ward of the Nonprofit Technology Network noted recently on this blog. There is no such thing as meaningless digital activism:

It’s true, that “liking” a post on Facebook isn’t going to “do” much. But, it shows us two things: First, that… supporters are listening and paying attention. Second, that supporters are standing by to take the action you promote. We should take those two messages as an opportunity to call our supporters to a bigger action.

Even the smallest action is at the very least a statement of interest that identifies people to be mobilized. The authors ignore this.

e-Petitions Amplify the Problems of Democracy, But They aren’t the Cause

Then, unsurprisingly, the authors give examples of spectacular failures of e-petitions: the pro-marijuana petition to the President voted up on the WhiteHouse.gov petition site in 2011 (clearly not the most pressing issue the President should be dealing with), or the anti-Road Tax petition in the UK that forced down a sensible proposed tax in 2007. This is totally fair. Sometimes petitions succeed, sometimes they fail. (Causation, by the way, is difficult to assign in both cases.) I would not argue if this was their argument.

But they go a step further, they start arguing against petitions because they are democratic. The authors write:

In addition to doubts about the efficacy of online petitions, the Editorial Board questions whether effective online petitions are even desirable. In the span of a few months in 2006 and 2007, the Road Tax petition managed to accumulate more than 1.8 million signatures in a nation of just 60 million; the British government was, according to the Westminster study, subsequently forced to scrap its road tax plans that “many considered an unpopular but necessary path to safeguard the environment.” When government steps in to make difficult decisions…. the ease and swiftness with which online petitions can garner the appearance of massive public opposition to a measure may kill legislation aimed at the long-term, best interests of constituents.

Wow, that is really the argument you are going to make? You are going to argue against e-petitions because they quickly and dramatically demonstrate public demands, and public demands are sometimes stupid? (With 1.8 million signatures you cannot claim that the petition was creating by some narrow interest group.)

Sometimes the people are wrong. Sometimes they vote and lobby against their own self-interest. Sometimes governments are unable to effectively explain the long-term benefits of short-term pain. But this is a problem with democracy, not with e-petitions. E-petitions didn’t make people short-sighted and tight-fisted. Let’s at least assign blame only where it is warranted.

Sensible Guidelines for Judging an e-Petition

The authors give two examples of successful e-petitions but dismiss them as being unpersuasive. They present two examples of unsuccessful e-petitions and find them very persuasive, without stating why. They finish their article by stating: “the Editorial Board suggests to readers that they do more than sign a petition if they want to bring about change.” I don’t think anyone would argue with that.

But they also state that “the overall efficacy of such petitions has not been convincingly shown.” Fine, fair enough, but in order for an individual to decide if they are going to sign an e-petition, they don’t need to know the “overall efficacy” of the e-petition, they just need to know the likely efficacy of the one e-petition they are thinking of signing. Here are some rules of thumb for making that decision:

How to Decide Whether to Sign an e-Petition

  1. Who is the petition aimed at (who is the target)?
  2. What constituencies does this person care about (who has influence over him/her)?
  3. Are you a member of one of those constituencies?

If you answered “Yes” to question 3, you are signing a petition with a real chance of success. If you answered “No,” your petition has less chance of success. This is why a petition to Bank of America by Bank of America customers worked and a petition to President Ahmadinejad by American college students does not work. It’s not rocket science. It’s a calculus of influence and identity.

This is a sensible basic rubric for engaging intelligently with e-petitions, but it’s not what the authors chose to put forward. They preferred to score rhetorical points, then throw their hands up and say “the jury is out.” Whether it fails or succeeds, digital activism is now a central mechanism of political action around the world. Let’s try honestly to understand it instead of making knee-jerk arguments.

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