Can Online Petitions Effect Change?

Online petitions can be one of the best ways to impact policy changes. We’ve seen it many times even within this year alone, masses of people gathering together can influence change, and petitions add momentum.

4 min read
Can Online Petitions Effect Change?

Online petitions have become increasingly popular over the past few years. More accessible than ever before, petitions are a popular means for people of all ages, backgrounds, and beliefs to come together and attempt change. This is a far cry from the days of pen and paper petitions, with some online petitions being millions of supporters strong.

Online petitions can be one of the best ways to impact policy changes. We’ve seen it many times even within this year alone, masses of people gathering together can influence change, and petitions add momentum. In the mix of trivial petitions such as endeavoring to ban sporks, or wanting the U.S government to fund and resource the construction of a Death Star, there are important petitions that grab the attention of thousands, indeed millions of people, helping to push or prohibit policy changes.

Over the past five months, more than 10 million people have signed a petition demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, a young African-American woman who was shot and killed by Louisville Metro Police Department. Although we have yet to see the outcome of this petition, it makes me wonder whether the outcome will be just a reaction rather than a real change. To better understand this let’s take a look at a few petitions that were considered “successful” to various petitioning sites.

Animal cruelty

This petition urged congress to pass the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) act to make animal cruelty a federal felony. Nearly 800,000 people signed the petitions and the bill was eventually enacted into law.

Ban on gay boy scouts

In 2012, a boy was refused an award of the highest rank in his Boy Scout troop because he had come out as gay. His mother started a petition to protest this decision and it gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures. The following year, Boy Scouts of America lifted its ban on openly gay youth and in 2015 they lifted their ban on gay adult leaders.

Trayvon Martin

After Trayvon Martin was shot and killed at just 17-years-old by a neighborhood watch leader, his parents started a petition calling to arrest the man who shot him. Within the first week the petition received over 870,000 signatures, eventually receiving more that 2.2 million signatures. The policeman was soon charged with second-degree murder. This incident forced the conversation of police brutality and helped relight the Black Lives Matter movement; one of the most prominent movements of this decade.

Eric Garner

Five years after a police officer was accused of fatally choking Eric Garner, the Justice Department confirmed they would not place charges against him. Days later, Eric Garner’s daughter launched a petition demanding that the NYPD officer be fired. The petition received over 170,000 signatures and the officer was finally fired with no charges after protesters interrupted a presidential debate.

George Floyd

Within the first three days the petition was created, it received 6 million signatures to demand the arrests of the four police officers involved in the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old man who was killed by an officer who knelt on his neck for 8 mins. All four officers were fired and one was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter only after a video circulated explicitly showing the officer's actions. The petition has since gathered nearly 20 million signatures. This incident catalyzed a pivotal movement in our society and has brought more attention than ever to Black Lives Matter. The petition provided a momentum that forced people to come together to stand against a systematic injustice that has stood since the beginning of American and Canadian history; reminding everyone that this movement is not meant to be a trending hashtag, but is meant to dismantle these inequalities for a better tomorrow.

Food for thought

What I find these instances have in common is that the institutions being petitioned against have conceded to each case, either lifting a ban, or arresting a cop, but are these actions immediate reactions to pacify the people without having to make changes within their institution? Though each individual case is very important, aren’t we, the people, fighting to see more substantial and enduring changes beyond these case by case incidences? What many believe we need is permanent institutionalized and systemic changes; will petitions help to achieve this?

When it comes to being effective, petitions are usually paired with many other actions. Here are a few important aspects to keep in mind when looking for a petition to sign:

1.       The issue being petitioned.

2.       Media and pressure regarding the issue.

3.       The general state of public opinion on the issue.

4.       Whether or not the institution being petitioned is vulnerable to the petitions proposed consequences.

5.       What actions are being taken alongside the petition.

However, there is no true measure of success for petitions despite these victories. In the early 1800's, a petition called The Chartist petition, the biggest petition in UK history, asked for various government reforms and received over 3.3 million physical signatures, however, the petition was completely rejected. From this one can understand that the number of signatures a petition receives does not necessarily determine whether it will succeed or not. Take a look at a few other unsuccessful petitions:

(The ban on President Trump from entering the UK petition has since been accepted, receiving 1.2 million signatures)

Online petitions are just the first step to change, the most powerful petitions are the ones accompanied by those who take action offline. For example, peaceful protests, writing personal letters/appeals, public awareness via social media and re-iterating governmental policies.

Considering the ever-growing audience on social media platforms, petitions have the potential to easily and quickly obtain signatures. With the right media attention and enough supporters, online petitions have proven to be the onset for change.


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