Rethinking the Online Petition: Not “Slactivism”

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook

From (here):

Online petitions are often seen as a form of “slacktivism” – small acts that don’t require much commitment and are more about helping us feel good than effective activism. But the impacts of online petitions can stretch beyond immediate results. * * * 

The simplest way to gauge if a petition has been successful is to look at whether the requests made were granted. The front page of displays recent “victories”. These including a call to axe the so-called “tampon tax” (the GST on menstrual products) which states and territories agreed to remove come January 2019. also boasts the petition for gender equality on cereal boxes as a victory, after Kelloggs sent a statement they would be updating their packaging in 2019 to include images of males and females. This petition only had 600 signatures, in comparison to the 75,000 against the tampon tax. * * * 

Knowing a few characteristics of successful petitions can be useful when you’re deciding whether it’s worth your time to sign and share something. Firstly, there should be a target and specific call for action.

These can take many forms: petitions might request a politician vote “yes” on a specific law, demand changes to working conditions at a company, or even ask an advocacy organisation to begin campaigning around a new issue. Vague targets and unclear goals aren’t well suited to petitions. Calls for “more gender equality in society” or “better rights for pets”, for example, are unlikely to achieve success. 

Secondly, the goal needs to be realistic. This is so it’s possible to succeed and so supporters feel a sense of optimism. Petitioning for a significant change in a foreign government’s policy – for example, a call from world citizens for better gun control in the US – is unlikely to lead to results. * * * 

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, a petition’s chance of success depends largely on the strength of community supporting it. Petitions rarely work on their own. In her book Twitter and Teargas, Turkish writer Zeynep Tufekci argues the internet allows us to organise action far more quickly than in the past, outpacing the hard but essential work of community organising.

We can get thousands of people signing a petition and shouting in the streets well before we build coalitions and think about long-term strategies. But the most effective petitions will work in combination with other forms of activism.

The full piece is here.

Lots of food for thought in this piece, but a few questions/thoughts come to mind:

What does it tell us about online petitions that the tampon tax repeal petitions are cited as the most “successful”?  Does it tell us something about the substance of the petition (that people are really, really fired up about the tax? That tax is a lens that makes gender inequality salient, and when people learn about it, they are willing to sign their names indicating opposition?  

Does the success (or failure) of online petitions reflect “what it takes” for women or other historically disadvantaged groups to be heard?  If so, what does that say about the health of the particular legal, social and political contexts in which the petition launches?

What are the demographics of the people behind successful online petitions?  Certainly, some of the them are grass-roots.  Others have corporate co-sponsors.  The popular US-based Stop Taxing Our Periods. Period. campaign, the brainchild of the brilliant and creative Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, was co-sponsored by Cosmopolitan Magazine. Nothing wrong with that; lots of good with that.  But what role did Cosmo‘s participation have in the petition’s success? What are the chances of petitions’ success without a successful partnership with a mainstream publication, group or other outlet? 

-Bridget Crawford

This entry was posted in Activism. Bookmark the permalink.