Online petitions: a show of care undercut by ease of signing

Online petitions almost certainly do not hold the same weight with their targets as offline petitions do. shutterstock

With the advent of the internet and proliferation of online petitions – organised by GetUp!, change.org and others that pop up in our inboxes and Facebook walls – online petitions have flourished while written petitions have stalled.

Since 1987, the percentage of Australians who have reported signing written petitions has fallen from 72% to 43%. But in the nine years since the Australian Election Study first asked about online petitions, the percentage of Australians who reported signing online has increased from 12% to 29%.

Women sign more online petitions than men

Women and men use the internet in equal measure, so the opportunities to sign an online petition should be gender-neutral – notwithstanding some persistent gender differences in the use of social networking platforms.

However, this is not the case. Women in Australia are more likely to report having signed an online petition than men. Once other factors – such as educational level, household income and age – are taken into consideration, women are more than twice as likely as men to have signed an online petition.

Researchers have assumed – until now – that the high rates of women signing petitions could be explained by opportunity. Women have been more likely to be at home when a petition-bearer comes doorknocking, or at the supermarket to sign a petition en route to the carpark.

The internet: where petitions go to die?

Petitions are a staple of political expression in Australia. They have shaped government policy, society and culture in the process. Close to 30,000 Victorian women signed a petition – later presented to state parliament – in 1891 demanding the right to vote.

The expanded opportunities to create and distribute petitions online have given voice to many worthy and previously marginalised causes – and others not so worthy. It is easy and inexpensive to produce an email-ready petition – just Google “online petitions Australia” and note how many websites exist to get you started.

Online petitions also hold similar official status to written petitions. The Australian Senate has been comparatively progressive in accepting online petitions (printed out, for tradition’s sake) as tabled documents for almost 20 years.

However, as the costs to entry – that is, how hard it is for any individual to perform an activity – decrease, so too can the expected benefits of that activity. This problem is perhaps starkest in regard to email lobbying campaigns.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has commented:

When you get 1000 emails, all in exactly the same form, it’s not exactly as persuasive as a bunch of emails people have written to independently express themselves.

New South Wales Greens MLC Penny Sharpe warns constituents:

If you want your email read and responded to – original is better. When my Blackberry filled up this morning with exactly the same email I did two things. I set up a rule so the emails are diverted into a folder that I won’t look at again. I then drafted a standard response for automatic reply. For many MPs they will simply delete.

Online petitions face the same threat. There is currently no effective mechanism for sorting the important from the marginal, or the potentially effective from the doomed-to-go-unread. It is not cognitively possible for those being lobbied to process – much less act on – everything they are sent.

Why do people sign online petitions?

It is worth remembering that individuals possess different motivations for participating in politics. It may be that most people who sign a petition have “instrumental” motivations: they earnestly hope to change government policy.

Others may hope only to ignite a public conversation on an issue. Others may be content just to express their voice on a topic. For these people, there is utility in putting pen to paper, or fingers to keys; they have “expressive” motivations.

Others still just want to get their shopping to their car in peace.

Online petitions almost certainly do not hold the same weight with their targets as do offline petitions. It takes time and effort to collect physical, pen-and-ink signatures. That effort is itself a signal that petition organisers are sending to the target.

Like it or not, online petitions send a certain signal to politicians and other leaders: we care, but maybe not enough to get off our seats.

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