Written for my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "Online petitions only hold potential value"
The Internet Age promises amazing powers of action with minimal effort. But sometimes it really is too good to be true. Case in point: online petitions.
A piece of paper signed by enough local residents serves as proof positive that many people hold to a position strongly enough to sign their name to it, and want to see action taken (or, in some cases, prevented). In some jurisdictions a properly-formatted petition with enough valid signatures requires official response from government, or can trigger a review, referendum, or recall of an elected official. Petitions thus hold a noble place in our culture as a tool of mass political action.
But what happens when that tool crosses into the electronic world? Surely everyone with email has received at least one electronic petition appeal; the highly connected see them on a daily basis. Their goals vary widely, but their lure is the same: by typing your name and clicking a button, you have the power to improve the world. Why not do it? Clicking a button is the least you can do, right?
Actually, it is the absolute least. It is so easy to click the button to sign an online petition that (with rare exceptions) public officials pay them little or no heed. Unless you are an elector in the appropriate district, your signature holds no legal weight. Further, since your e-signature can’t be verified, it bears no weight at all.
Yet if online petitions are so powerless, why so many of them? The real strength of such a petition is not as a method of persuading higher powers, but of gathering contact information. By signing and passing it along, you equip the creators of a successful online petition with the names and emails of potential supporters, people who might be persuaded to do more than just click a button. These contact lists are then used for fundraising, or to try and get you to join an organization or take part in a (real world) activity. You may be asked to send a letter, fax, or email to a government member, actions which are far more effective than online petition-signing. Avaaz.org is very active at this, starting with petition drives that turn into fundraising drives for money to spend on advertising and lobbying politicians – sometimes with real effect.
Does this mean online petitions are useless? No; in fact, I recently signed two, one against the mega-quarry and one about asbestos (both subjects of future columns). Just don’t be fooled into thinking you’ve actually accomplished something by “signing”. Instead, know that you are merely taking the first step of connecting with a group that (hopefully) will involve you in more meaningful action tomorrow.
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.