Archive for May, 2010

online petitions: another point of view

Randy Paynter, founder of thePetitionSite and Care2, has an interesting blog post about the effectiveness of online petitions.  It’s worth reading before reading my response.  I think a lot of Paynter’s arguments make intuitive sense, and I’d like them to be true.  There’s unfortunately scant evidence to support much of what he says, which is a common problem when trying to understand and quantify causal relationships.

When I posted about the topic previously, I mentioned the Snopes article on online petitions, which claims they are a waste of time.  I also noted that Snopes didn’t cite any evidence.  Paynter strongly disagrees with Snopes’ assessment, and he tries to provide evidence to the contrary.  Paynter says online petitions often do make things happen, and he provides many examples.  However, in almost all cases, he doesn’t provide any evidence that the petition caused the actions/changes described (exception: a military officer got to keep a stray Iraqi dog that she’d adopted, instead of the military destroying it as originally planned.  the petition is cited as a cause).  I think it would be hard in many cases to quantify the effect of a petition, but it would be nice if the articles he linked to actually included some mention of public officials (or other targets of petitions) feeling pressure to act in certain ways because of the petitions.  The one thing he does say along those lines is that North Korea tried to shut down thePetitionSite when a petition hosted on the site asked for the release two U.S. journalists imprisoned in North Korea last year.  That sounds like at least the petition was getting noticed.  But I doubt (though I may be wrong) that the petition was a decisive factor in getting the journalists released.  Still, I am not unwilling to believe that online petitions have made a big difference in a number of issues, by attracting media attention and/or making a segment of public opinion known.  But I’m still hoping to actually see some direct evidence.

Paynter also says that people who sign a petition associated with a non-profit are more likely to later donate money to that non-profit.  He links to a paper that provides evidence supporting this claim as part of research on donations to non-profits (see Table 7). Note that this study groups together people who take any online action — letter writing being the example they give — and does not specifically examine online petitions, but the key difference they’re showing is between people who get involved in any way and those who don’t.  One problem with this statistic is that it assumes a causal link from a correlation — maybe the group of people that is more likely to eventually get around to donating is also more likely to sign a petition — but the petition plays no causal role in the donation.  However, it is at least plausible that people who take a step like signing a petition then feel more engaged and are subsequently — as a result of that feeling — more likely to donate.

Paynter also makes the following statements:

The reason we have such apathy in society today is because most people believe it’s too difficult to have an impact and/or they don’t believe they personally can make a difference. Because online activism makes it easy to get involved, millions more people than ever before are speaking up and taking action. And that’s a good thing. Ask any hardcore activist you know – their first action probably wasn’t storming the White House. Usually, activists start with simple steps, get some positive feedback, and then take it to a higher level. If we want a more engaged democracy we need to make it easy for as many people as possible to feel the joy of those first simple steps. Internet petitions are effectively a “gateway drug” to more civic engagement.

I could easily imagine this being the case.  But are internet petitions more often a gateway drug to further involvement — or do they more often make people feel like they’ve already done something about the issue in question, and thereby stop people from taking other, more effective actions?  I just don’t have the data to tell (and if Paynter does, he didn’t provide it).

I suspect Paynter is right to at least some degree about most of his claims.  I’m sure that, for some people, signing petitions is a first step toward doing more.  I think I ended up on several mailing lists for organizations by initially signing petitions they had organized, and through the subsequent emails, I found other ways to be involved.  I also think that petitions probably can help cause change in certain situations.  And, while I’d love data helping to define and quantify the role of petitions across different kinds of situations, at least we can say that it’s a minimal effort activity that won’t do any harm in and of itself, and may get people thinking about issues and how to help make the changes they want to see.

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