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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.

Photo: Getty
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Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.