Thousands have signed for justice in Breonna Taylor’s case too. Others have showed their support in renaming the city of Columbus, Ohio. And more than 160,000 have signed a petition asking US leaders to restore funding to the World Health Organization.
There’s a myriad of petitions online calling for change in issues ranging from social justice to environmental rights to healthcare.
But do they make a difference?
Well, it’s complicated.
There’s no true measure of success for petitions. That’s because, in order to be effective, they almost always are paired with dozens more actions carried out by the organization or individuals who drafted the petition and by the signers themselves.
So while it’s often hard to credit outcome – like new legislation or a company’s decision – directly back to the signatures that may have pushed for that result, those who study digital activism and those who help craft campaigns say the greatest power of petitions is bringing together crowds behind an ask and often acting as an entry point for many of the signers’ journey to activism.
“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,” says Rosemary Clark-Parsons, the associate director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center on Digital Culture and Society.
Is it ‘slacktivism’?
Critics have often labeled online petitions as another form of “slacktivism,” pointing to their low-risk nature that doesn’t commit its signers to any further action other than the click of a button. But it’s exactly that ease and accessibility which make petitions powerful tools, Clark-Parsons says.
“Both research and anecdotal evidence tell us that most people will not take part in activism that requires great risk or high levels of commitment,” Clark-Parsons said. “What critics refer to as ‘slacktivism’ can actually create an alternative outlet for those who would typically not get involved in any movement at all.”
With the help of petitions, organizers and movement leaders can visualize who their supporters are and who are “the people who agree with their mission but aren’t willing to take major actions to support it just yet,” she says.
“This is powerful data about your extended network of support,” she says. “Once you can see your passive allies, you can work toward encouraging them to become active allies and join the ranks of supporters who are actively fighting alongside you for the cause.”
So while it may just begin with the click of a button, piling your signature on a list of others calling for change means you’re publicly stating your support for an issue. And that, Randy Paynter says, is a big deal.
“That’s very likely to … influence where you spend your money in the future, how you vote, how you influence your friends,” says Paynter, the founder and CEO of Care2, a site that hosts petitions.
He says those who add their signature to a petition are then more likely to get involved in the issues those campaigns target – and more likely to donate to nonprofits working around those issues. And he’s got the numbers to prove it.
“We’ve recruited over a hundred million individuals over the last 20 years to support several thousand nonprofit organizations,” he says. “Through those individuals, organizations have raised over a billion dollars.”
They’re almost always part of a larger puzzle
But donations are just one part of involvement. Petitions offer an opportunity for organizations to step in and guide their newfound supporters into a multitude of next steps in working toward a cause, turning them from just supportive bystanders into active members in a movement.
“You have to give them opportunities to help out in other ways,” says Elana Levin, the director of trainings at Netroots Nation – an annual-multi issue progressive conference. “Are you directing people to join conference calls, to do planning and strategy? Are you going to help people build campaigns where they live? You have to use it for something and don’t just rely for people to just do it for themselves.”
Perhaps one of the best examples comes from Color of Change, the country’s largest online racial justice organization, whose campaigns often include petitions paired with calls to action. Among its recent victories, the organization lists its work to end money bail, pressuring Facebook to disallow white nationalist content and pushing GoFundMe to take down a page gathering donations for the men who killed Georgia jogger Ahmaud Arbery.
Another recent online petition started by an organization member called on Zoom to protect its users from racist cyber attacks. More than 35,000 people signed. The campaign was then backed by organizations including the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Media Matters for America and the National LGBTQ Task Force. Color of Change said it reached out to Zoom’s CEO and then announced the company had hired its first Chief Diversity Officer.
So just think of petitions as a first step. They work best when they work in tandem with other efforts – calls to a mayor’s office, city council testimonies, petition deliveries, social media movements.
Another example is a petition for Ryan Andresen, who said he was told by his Boy Scout troop in the San Francisco Bay area in 2012 he couldn’t receive the Eagle Scout award because he was gay. The petition was one of several initiatives pushing for a change in the organization’s policy, that together gathered hundreds of thousands of supporters and mass media attention and put pressure on companies that gave money to the organization.
In 2013, the Boy Scouts of America voted to end its ban on openly gay youth – and two years after that, announced it would allow gay adults as Scout leaders.
In the case of Boy Scouts, many of those who signed online petitions later went on to continue efforts to get rid of the ban, says Michael Jones, the managing director of campaigns at Change.org.
“Once someone signed a petition, then they got engaged to make phone calls. They got engaged to tag the Boy Scouts of America on social media. They got engaged in calling different decision makers to try and put pressure. They were asked to show up to public events where there were going to be deliveries. They were even asked to start their own petitions focused on local scout councils, encouraging them to support overturning the ban.”
The petitions are just a part of the puzzle, meant to be easy enough to encourage those who sign to get further involved.
They should have a ‘theory of change’
Without clear next steps, petitions can sometimes lead nowhere. In other cases, they’ve acted as crucial parts of campaigns, working to raise awareness about an issue or an organization and paired with a strong call to action – or a theory of change.
“That explains how signing your name to this petition will result in the change that you’re calling for,” Levin says. “You can’t just have people sign their name and then not really do anything with it … You have to have petitions where you’re asking an audience of people to do something in which them exerting mass pressure on the target will matter.”
In other words, having a realistic ask that helps signers understand how adding their name to a cause can help bring about change. For this part, specificity is key – who’s in charge of decisions? What exactly are you calling for? Who’s affected?
“Let’s say you start a petition to influence a local dress code policy for the school that you’re in,” Jones, with Change.org, says.
“If you target your local school board and you talk about how the school board has been influenced by other public pressure campaigns or how the school board has made changes before and you really show that pressure can work to influence a policy, that’s where you can really make it seem like ‘Oh, this is not only something that’s timely, topical and has a good story, but actually, I believe it. I believe that if enough people take action, there’ll be a chance that we can change something.’”
Tips for a successful petition
The school board example is an important one because not all petitions are part of a larger movement or hosted by organizations who are gathering people power. Oftentimes, it’s just one person asking for help. Demanding change in their city or neighborhood. Or just simply working to raise awareness on an issue.
And in that case, there are some key factors that help make campaigns more effective than others.
Jones says one big component is the story – the emotional stakes – behind a petition.
“How do you make people care about this? What is the thing that’s going to make them see the power of your story or the inspiring piece of your story?” he said. “It’s really crafting a narrative and talking about how an issue has either affected you or affected your community.”
Clark-Parsons says petitions are also especially powerful when attached to an issue that’s already making headlines. Adding timeliness and urgency to a petition can more easily convey to readers why their signature matters right now.
“When people read news that upsets them, they want to do something about it,” she said. “A petition provides an easy outlet for taking action.”
So after you jot your name down, take a moment to think about all the actions you could take to build on your signature.
“If you don’t have time to become actively involved, you might consider donating money to the cause or using your social media networks to signal boost its message,” Clark-Parsons says. “Know that all of these small actions can add up.”