Do online petitions actually work? The numbers reveal the truth

More than a one million people have signed a petition calling for President Trump's invitation to the UK to be revoked. Is this another example of "slacktivism"? 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Donald Trump has officially been banned from entering the United Kingdom after an online petition secured 1,276,628 signatures this morning.

Well, that's how the news bulletins went in an alternate universe, one where the viral request to revoke Theresa May’s invitation to the 45th President was immediately honoured, before Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II declared the day a national holiday and a bulldog covered in bunting barked "God Save the Queen" on ITV.

In this colder and greyer universe, however, the appeal – hosted on Parliament’s two-year-old e-petitions website – was met with a simple “OK, but no” from a Downing Street spokesperson, before the hashtag #banTrumpFromUK began trending on Twitter.

You’ll be forgiven if, right about now, you are overcome with a hazy orange blob of déjà vu. Just over a year ago, on 18 January 2016, MPs debated whether or not the then-presidential hopeful should be banned from the UK after a nearly identical petition gained 586,930 signatures. Those who do not remember last year, it seems, are doomed to repeat it.

So what does this tell us about the current state of online activism?

“If a petition gets 100,000 signatures, it will be considered for debate in Parliament,” reads the official government website, which pledges that “anyone” who is a British citizen or UK resident can create a petition at the click of a big green button. It remains to be seen whether today’s million signature-strong appeal will lead to the exclusion of Trump from our shores (spoiler alert: no) but have previous parliamentary petitions ever succeeded in implementing real change? (Second spoiler alert: also no).

Using the content analysing tool BuzzSumo, I discovered the top ten most-shared campaigns from petition.parliament.uk within the last year. It seems logical that the most-shared petitions are those with the largest chance of success, and all reached the threshold to be debated by MPs (though four of the ten were actually denied a debate). Despite accumulating millions of signatures and hundreds of thousands of shares, however, not a single one of these campaigns suceeded in obtaining its intended outcome. 

Critics of online “Slacktivism” will be delighted by these results, which appear to demonstrate that sitting at home on your computer can’t really provoke social change. It is undeniable, however, that petitions with millions of signatures send a powerful message about the will of the British population. When Trump makes his first official state visit later this year, he will do so knowing he is vastly unwelcome.

The problem with using petitions to send a message, however, is that their set-up inevitably forces us to homogenise the message we want to send. Graham Guest, the man who created yesterday’s petition to ban Trump from making an official state visit to the UK, didn’t do so as a response to the President’s controversial "Muslim ban". He did so “because [Trump’s visit] would cause embarrassment to Her Majesty the Queen.” Excuse us for not fretting over HRH when hundreds of people are currently being detained and questioned at American airports. 

Yet whilst popular parliamentary petitions seem to have had little success, a slightly more promising picture is painted when examining Change.org, the world’s largest e-petitioning website. Under its “Victories” page, the organisation boasts an abundance of successful campaigns, from the abolishment of the tampon tax to ending the sale of eggs from caged hens in UK supermarkets.

These success stories prove that petitions can inspire real change, though it is worth noting that there were only four UK petitions in 2016 that were considered significant enough victories to be “Featured” by Change.org. Most of the millions of e-petitions that get signed each year, then, fall on deaf ears and achieve very little. Though many might argue that such campaigns are instrumental in raising awareness, they arguably also allow people to feel as though they have taken action when they haven’t, potentially preventing individuals from pursuing more hands-on activism. 

The answer, however, isn't to stop lending your signature to the next viral campaign that pops along. You have nothing to lose from signing something you agree with, and you never know which appeal might defeat the odds and provoke real change. Instead, the answer is to protest actively as well as passively, and ensure that each one of your clicks is met with a real, offline action. Imagine, for example, if the one million people scrolling and clicking to ban the President from our country turned up to greet the Trump private jet when it landed in London? I'd sign up for that. 

Amelia Tait is features editor at Shortlist.com, she was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer, and tweets at @ameliargh.