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…but it could May 28, 2009

Posted by Farzana Rasool in Uncategorized.

I’m not a one-eyed, small-minded ranter, though it may seem like I am at times. I do acknowledge the bright side of human nature that is not always self-feeding and egocentric and I do see the not-dark side of petitioning.

The good

The speed at which large amounts of people can be reached no doubt gives a huge shoulder up to digital petitions. They’re a way to close the gap between citizens and their governments. See how some governments are capitalising on this.

As pointed out by Handmadebyava in a comment on Sign for a cause, any cause, it doesn’t make a difference, there are those whose intentions are sincere. These are users who judge the success of their petitions not just by how many signatures they attain, but by what difference it eventually makes. The same goes for some who do the signing, they actually follow up on what the petition has achieved. Not everyone signs and then looks away before the ink dries.


 Petitions cannot legally enforce any change in policy but a large number of signatures enforce a moral authority on governments, that can’t be  ignored. Anthony Williams gives the example of how Nelson Mandela’s release from prison can, in part, be attributed to petitions that were presented to the United Nations in contempt of the Apartheid Government.

Another case is on Sheralyn Tay’s site on digital petitions where a Chinese labour activist was saved from the death penalty because of petitions. This, however, is not always the case.


People who work full-time jobs and people who have children and so, little extra time, can participate in politics where, without petitions, they would have had to remain passive observers. They can now contribute and help make meaningful changes in society.


It’s a way for the voiceless masses to advocate their views. They can literally put their name behind or against a social occurrence, but the problem lies in who gets to see their names in conjunction with others, all screaming out against some atrocity or the other?


Williams says: “A problem…is the lack of framework for translating the results of these petitions into action. There is no way of citizens knowing what, if any, the result of their efforts will be.”


What then, is the point of exercising your voice if it’s still unheard?


The bad

 Yet again, it’s a way to make your special self feel important and to help rid you of your sense of social responsibility. It’s something to put your name against when you’re chatting to other soccer mums or playing a game of golf with your colleagues. You, you, you.


How often do signees make sure that the petitions eventually get to someone who can make a change? It’s become more like a competition to see which petition gets the most signatures.


“Whatever their cause, supporters say it’s exciting and gratifying to see the number of signatures on their petitions grow throughout the days and weeks they’ve been in cyberspace,” says Duncan Martell in an article on online petitions.


 Even when petitions are carried forward to the right people or authorities, they still face other obstacles. Authorities don’t always pay attention to them and how are they to determine the authenticity of the petitions and the signatures? There is no certain way for them to verify that there’s only one signature per person.


Stevenson mentions another hardship which is that MPs or those in positions of authority will become overloaded with e-petitions that need consulting and then the situation will become impractical.


“They could have to become editors; struggling with the “trivial or mischievous” time-wasters… confidence in parliament might even be eroded. And the whole affair could prove damaging in terms of costs.”


Question: do we really want petitions to change policy considering that they may not always be representative? Usually people who are anti- something will petition and those that are satisfied will be silent. How do we account for them or for people on the other side of the digital divide that don’t have access to the required technology?


The ugly

 This section is named ugly after the horrible sponsors behind petitions (yes people sponsoring activism!) and because I think MP’s are quite ugly. I don’t know for sure but it’s just a feeling, like you know that sense you have that broccoli tastes terrible even though you’ve never actually eaten any?


Check out TruthOrFiction for more on petition sponsors and how companies use petitions to compose marketing mailing lists.


And the seriously strange

This is what happens when petitioning becomes easy:

41,000 people signed up on the UK government’s Downing Street e-petition site to make Jeremy Clarkson Prime Minister.                                                                                              


Examples of highest ranking petitions on petition sites are one for legalising marijuana in the UK and another for a fifth season of a science-fiction show.


Martell provides another nutter: “In light of these concerns, there’s even been an online petition petitioning the petition website to stop posting online petitions. Got that?”



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