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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"? 

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 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, 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 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 a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Can parliament force a government U-turn on the UK’s customs union membership?

Downing Street is trying to bully Conservative Remainers with the threat of letting in a Jeremy Corbyn government.

Nice precarious hold on power you’ve got there, Prime Minister. Shame if something happened to it.

Downing Street is insisting that there will not be U-turn on the United Kingdom’s membership of any kind of customs union with the European Union after we leave, as they face a series of defeats in the Lords and a possible defeat in a non-binding vote in the Commons on the issue.

As I explained on the Westminster Hour last night, while the defeats this week won't change government policy, they are a canary in the coal mine for the ones that can.

The nightmare for Theresa May is that, thanks to the general election, she faces a situation in which a majority of the governing party favours one approach to Brexit but a majority of the House of Commons favours another. 

The question is: what happens then? Downing Street is also pushing the line that the vote on the customs union will be a “confidence issue”, ie they are trying to bully Conservative Remainers with the threat of letting in a Jeremy Corbyn government. But, of course, thanks to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, there is no such thing as a “confidence issue” outside a very specific motion of no confidence. Or, at least, there is no such thing as a “confidence issue” – which can bring about a new parliament.

May can make the issue one of confidence in her own leadership and resign if she is defeated, but, under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, that wouldn’t trigger a new election: merely an invitation by the Queen to another politician to form a government. And frankly, as far as the Commons arithmetic goes, “another politician” is far more likely to be Michael Gove than Jeremy Corbyn. The process whereby you get even the glimmer of a risk of a Labour government by voting to keep the United Kingdom in a customs union is altogether more complicated and lengthier than Downing Street would like to pretend.

But the problem for Conservatives in particular, and Brexiteers in general, is while they can change the Prime Minister, they can't change the parliamentary arithmetic. Whether the majority of Conservative MPs want it or not, a U-turn on the customs union may well be inevitable.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.