The Power of the Online Petition

Rebutting Vice’s Misguided Objections to “Clicktivism”


Some seriously amazing things have happened over the past few months and years. To give just three examples of hundreds:

Our democratic process is stronger now that senior citizens with broken hips can participate, even if they can’t march in the streets. It’s a step forward that the Boy Scouts now allow gay scouts, if not yet leaders. And we are all better off when small NGOs can build the infrastructure they need to win.

No, this is not my version of the classic Sesame Street game, “One of these things is not like the others.” All of these examples of social progress and innovation come from the same place: Online petitions.

Online petitions are the biggest digital step yet in empowering local citizens, are one tool among many in the campaign toolbox, and can even sometimes win campaigns and secure progress all on their own.

But in his recent piece for Vice’s Motherboard channel, “Who’s Getting Rich Off Profit-Driven ‘Clicktivism’,” Nithin Coca does not share this view. His central arguments are that online petitions make money for their for-profit platforms rather than their citizen creators, and that they aren’t powerful enough to win very often — and that it doesn’t matter when they do win, since they fail to tackle the biggest issues.

Empowerment

In 2012, the Obama campaign’s field department had an important motto: “Respect, empower, include.” While it’s hard for a top-down political campaign focused on one candidate to empower the public, it nonetheless meant a great deal to me that that was even an attempted ethos. Empowerment is the central tenant of good community organizing. Millions of people want to make a change in their communities — and already have the power to do so, if only they realized it and were given the tools they need to succeed.

Citizen-created online petitions at websites like Care2 and Change.org are the biggest innovation to date in empowering people to find that power and raise their voice. (Full disclosure: I was a part-time freelance organizer for Change.org several years ago.) Concerned the local prom king can’t wear a dress, or that your town needs more bike lanes or perhaps more video accountability of the police? For the first time, “regular” citizens can work to improve their communities by gathering and submitting hundreds — even thousands — of signatures without spending weeks knocking on unwelcoming doors first. The organizations that allow citizens to start these petitions are proudly proclaiming, “You are not alone! YES, you CAN fight City Hall!”

Part of this empowerment is bringing new people into the process — online petitions make democracy much more accessible. This is what I meant when I said that a senior citizen with a broken hip can still participate in the process. Even when canvassing door-to-door isn’t an option, the homebound, those too poor to donate, and those who could lose their jobs by marching can still raise their voices with petitions.

Coca’s objection here is that the citizens who created these petitions don’t have total control over them: “The data (how you click, open messages, the action you take, what engages you, and what you share) and technology (proprietary petition and email blast software) remain in the hands of a handful of private companies and large NGOs.”

I have two responses to that argument. First, the tools aren’t perfect, that’s true. But even if they were non-profit and open-source rather than controlled by for-profit companies, open-source is only helpful in the hands of developers. Most of the people creating these petitions don’t have nearly that level of sophistication. I don’t mean to sound patronizing — with training, anyone could learn how to use this data. But isn’t that the case with almost any profession?

Secondly, what’s wrong with NGOs growing their email lists via sponsored petitions? This is the fastest way to gain the infrastructure and capacity needed to win campaigns. Why should they be shamed for growth, especially if it comes alongside helping like-minded citizens mobilize on their own issues?

But is it worth it?

But my strongest objection to Coca’s piece isn’t his criticism of these petitions or their sponsors — it’s his criticism of their topics.

“I don’t need to tell you the world is facing huge challenges at the moment: Syria, Gaza, climate change, Tibet. Then go to Change.org. You won’t find many of these issues on there.… Maybe one [petition] will ask you to fight against a coal plant in your hometown. Maybe it’ll win. Meanwhile, thousands of acres of Indonesian forests will have been burned, cleared for coal mines, coal that is then exported to China, where five new, massive coal plants have opened in the time it took you to win your campaign. The impact, globally, is nil.”

Why should we only address the world’s biggest problems and let the smaller ones fester? What could possibly be wrong with seeking change in one’s own community? That’s not mutually exclusive with caring about the broader world. Should we yell at folks calling their local transportation department about a pothole instead of spending that time calling Congress about Tibet?

Furthermore, these local campaigns DO matter. To address Coca’s own example about coal: Between the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, new EPA regulations, and the falling price of natural gas, 167 dirty coal plants have been retired in the past few years. Coca may argue that 167 drops isn’t a bucket, but let’s remember that the U.S. is the world’s second largest producer of carbon emissions — it doesn’t help anything to argue that we should redirect our domestic climate efforts to Indonesia and China. We can and must do both.

Setting aside the global climate for a moment, let’s also remember that the environment is a social justice issue. Most coal plants, just like many smoggy freeways, are built in low-income neighborhoods. As a society, we routinely ask the poorest to bear the most. So when Omaha, NE, announced it was closing the coal plant in the middle of its poorest, blackest neighborhood (where I used to live), I cheered — everyone deserves clean air.

One tool among many

Coca also argues that petitions aren’t powerful enough, writing that they “often fail to challenge the status quo.” Actually, petitions can be successful entirely on their own if they are targeting entities not used to immense public pressure — perhaps a corporation that hates to see its brand tarnished (Corporations quitting the right-wing legislation factory ALEC, Change.org getting United Airlines to ban harmful Styrofoam, SumOfUs getting Woolworth’s to sign the Bangladesh factory agreement) or a local official or smaller federal agency not used to large volumes of email (MoveOn members showing the Philadelphia school superintendent the community didn’t want to cut music funding). Coca worries that listing victories like this cheapens the bigger ones, but that doesn’t mean these weren’t positive steps that shouldn’t have happened.

More generally, he is right: Petitions don’t challenge the status quo. That’s because they’re just one tool — show me any large building that was built with just one tool! Most larger, successful campaigns require a “ladder of engagement,” where a petition is only the first rung. This means that NGO petitions serve to identify folks interested in a cause who the organization can then ask to take bigger steps like volunteering in-person, donating, attending an event, or making a phone call. If, however, we always made the higher ask the first ask, most of the audience would learn to tune us out for always asking too much. Successful campaigns using petitions in this model include the aforementioned Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, or the Senate filibuster reform push led by Daily Kos.

Going a step further, petitions don’t just identify possible activists; they even help make new ones. Someone who would have never previously agreed to give time or money may feel more invested in a cause after signing their name to it, and be more likely to now take the bigger actions. Removing petitions from this equation is like removing dressing from a salad — yeah, the dressing alone isn’t enough to be a salad, but it’s a pretty important ingredient.

What’s the alternative?

Coca’s preferred alternatives to petitions wouldn’t accomplish the same empowerment or accessibility of citizen petition tools:

“I know a local NGO that has developed open-source, web-based community tools for rural village leaders to monitor migrant workers from their villages, creating a vast database of open information that can help reduce instances of human trafficking and exploitation.”

This sounds like a wonderful thing, and I’m glad it exists! But as the empowerment argument suggests, a tool for village LEADERS does not replace a tool meant for EVERYONE — and a solution specifically designed for one specific issue certainly doesn’t scale as a tool for every cause. It’s impractical to think there are enough developers and engineers to design a custom suite like this for every single issue. If Coca’s complaint is that the web isn’t open enough yet, or that these petitions tools are still run by the for-profit few, then he undermines himself by suggesting the solution is another tool meant for the hands of elite leaders.

But Coca’s most ludicrous argument comes when he says that the money going towards Change.org, Blue State Digital, and other for-profit campaign behemoths should be going towards other campaigns:

“The money is flowing in the wrong direction… At last estimate, Change.org’s traffic was growing in leaps and bounds, and it was bringing in millions of dollars with its centrally controlled petition tool that counts hundreds of ‘victories.’ Imagine if that money went to community organizations in developing countries…”

Two major problems here. First of all, I think it’s silly, counterproductive, and even destructive to argue that every one of these dollars should be going to “developing countries,” as if those are the only issues in need of urgent attention. Yes, we should certainly drastically increase our foreign aid — both from private donations and the government. But as this month’s events in Ferguson, our own carbon emissions, and the U.S. wealth gap all show, we’ve still got work to do at home. Campaigning and organizing aren’t zero sum games.

But secondly, there’s another, more practical flaw with Coca’s argument about causes. The money flowing to the for-profit petition and advocacy companies is coming from NGOs like the League of Conservation Voters and the Democratic Party. Does Coca really think the Democrats are going to stop paying to grow their email list so that they can send the money to OxFam or UNICEF instead — and thus lose a few more elections and see their power to affect change diminish? It’s not practical to think that the League of Conservation Voters will pay to fight human trafficking in Indonesia instead of reducing U.S. carbon emissions — or to believe that the NAACP will turn its entire acquisition budget over to waging peace in Gaza, rather than build out its own infrastructure to run better US voting rights campaigns.

All that being said, I don’t disagree with everything Coca wrote. He makes one absolutely great point I couldn’t agree with more:

“This reflects how today’s internet, despite its potential as a Democratizing Tool, is controlled by the few. Look at mobile — most apps have to go through Apple and Google’s not-always transparent approval process to be placed on their app stores and become visible to millions of smartphone users.”

What are the solutions here? For one, be sure to raise your voice and sign a net neutrality petition — to the FCC, to Congress, to President Obama. More specifically, perhaps some new, robust mobile operating systems will emerge and provide us with an open app store one day. That would be great. Even if it’s too pie-in-the-sky — there have always been gatekeepers savvier about tools than their customers — we can at least push to make their methodologies transparent and their reasoning a matter of public debate and record. And though I’m no developer, I’d love to see a user-created petition tool that offers more training and tools for organizing than just petitions, a direction Change.org was once headed in. Regardless of what happens, we all need to push back against corporate control — and arguing that petitions harm that cause is a futile misdirection.

@NathanEmpsall is currently a senior digital innovation campaigner at a major U.S. NGO. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer, which is why he hasn’t named that employer here (though Twitter and the Google won’t lie to you). In fact, these views are so much his own that he wrote this article while on vacation when he could have been out hiking.