Recently, the tragic events in Syria have dominated international attention. Most people watch with horror as Bashar al-Assad brutally represses his people and commits countless human rights abuses. Many members of the opposition have been viciously tortured, generating a self-righteous outrage and a rhetorical call to action. A sentiment common to this issue, however, is helplessness. Other than physically going to Syria, what can a concerned citizen possibly do about the issue of Syrian torture, while being removed from the actual events? Actually, the answer is: quite a lot.
Enter the online petition. A relatively new practice, the concept has its roots in the age-old activity of collecting signatures to call for some kind of action— a tool for the masses to put pressure on those in power. These petitions can range from the serious (for example, a call for the UN to declare crimes against humanity against Syrian torturers) to the less pressing (such as a push for the construction of a local skate park). Instead of collecting actual John Hancocks, however, an online petition accumulates virtual pledges that serve the same purpose. One simply needs an Internet connection and a clickable mouse in order to support and enact change.
While essentially serving the same function as a traditional petition, the online format makes the process much more efficient and accessible for anyone with Internet capabilities. Instead of having to go door-to-door or mail around a paper petition, an online version is simultaneously available to every Internet-connected person around the world. These petitions can amplify an issue quickly and in some instances, can lead to substantive change. They can also serve to promote dialogue between potential advocacy partners, allowing them to find common causes for which to fight. While the majority of these petitions focus on local or domestic problems, some websites venture into global and internationally flavored areas.
For example, Avaaz, an organization that specifically covers global issues, started a petition that called for increased access to technology and communication devices for those in developing countries with repressive regimes, which would allow for greater and more accurate accounts of happenings. The petition accumulated over 30,000 signatures, sparked media coverage on numerous major news networks, and has led to large amounts of donations for local members of these countries to more fully tell their stories. In another inspiring instance, Change.org began a petition calling for much heavier surveillance of the horrific practice of “corrective rape” in South Africa. It quickly gained over 170,000 signatures and was a major reason behind the creation of a South African task force to help end the practice.
Online petitions do have their detractors, however. Critics frequently use the word “slacktivism” when describing these online efforts, claiming that they are a lazy attempt at true activism— they claim that real change involves going out and doing something, not simply sitting in front of a computer screen. Many also fear that Internet petitions breed complacency, assuaging the guilt of doing nothing and therefore leading to future inaction. Finally, skeptics often point to the extremely low success rate of the petitions, and question if they really have any true effect at all.
Fortunately, many of these criticisms have been addressed and improved by astute organizations. According to a recent study, signing an online petition makes one seven times more likely to participate in another form of activist activity. Rather than breed complacency, online petitioning seems to actually fuel further activism. Many organizations have also come to acknowledge that by themselves, online calls for action cannot accomplish much. Therefore, many websites and organizations provide funding to further promising campaigns, connect activists with more established NGOs with similar goals, and/or encourage a donation to go along with a signature. Finally, while the success rate of online petitions is indeed very low, there are still poignant examples of successes and victories that cannot be discounted. At worst, they seem to be a useful way to express feelings wishing for reform, and at best can be a key instigator for actual change.
As online petitioning continues to grow, especially on the global scale, international and development issues appear to be getting more and more attention. Though not perfect, these globally focused calls for action may be yet another potentially effective way in making improvements in the parts of the world that need it most.