The Popularity Of The Online Petition Is The Very Thing That Is Undermining It

Over half a million people have now signed the government petition ‘Block Donald J Trump from UK entry’, far exceeding the 100,000 signiture necessary for Parliament to consider whether to put this to a debate. It is now the most signed UK government petition ever.

However, despite there being many merits of permanently excluding Trump from our shores (I personally think the world would benefit from a full Trump blackout including the media and the internet), do 560,122 of us genuinely think that this will be debated by Parliament? Two petitions have cleared the 100,000 threshold without success, ‘Benjamin Netanyahu to be arrested for war crimes when he arrives in London’ and ‘Vote no confidence in David Cameron’. I would suggest that even with a few hundred thousand more signatures, the Petitions Commitee may shelve this one too.

There are many excellent and important issues raised by petitions, but as the ‘BBC: Bring Back Clarkson‘ petition shows, it is often the most click friendly ‘campaigns’ that generate the most publicity, regardless of their substance. The Clarkson petition rapidly snowballed and has gained over a million signatures to date, far surpassing any other petition started in this country. To compare and contrast, the ‘#BringBackOurGirls‘ campaign to rescue over 200 girls abducted in Nigeria has reached the same figure after a two year, worldwide appeal.

Whatever the validity and merits of an individual petition, the sheer volume of them is also an issue. Of the 4,109 government petitions, just fourteen have been debated this parliament with 1,895 rejected. If you also included the thousands of other petitions started through 38 Degrees and Change.org, then the total number of petitions in this country would probably run into the tens of thousands. In its first 100 days alone the UK Government e-petition site received over 2.6 million signatures. Their effectiveness is therefore blunted, swallowed up in the ocean, all jostling for recognition.

As a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate at the last election I had some experience of this and learnt first-hand of the problems of the mass petitioning that was sometimes caused. I would receive a number of emails each day, many in the form of a petition, all asking what my position was on a wide variety of issues. I tried to reply as many as I could personally but, in all honesty, it was near impossible to reply to all given the volume of emails I received (many in a template format). The expectation that my knowledge would extend to dozens of issues was also, on occasions, unrealistic.

The ‘top ten’ of active government petitions also indicates the problematic potential of government petitions with five of the top ten ongoing petitions focusing on similar issues, albeit for contrasting reasons. Number two on the list is entitled ‘Stop all immigration and close the UK borders until ISIS is defeated’. Number 3? ‘Accept more asylum seekers and increase support for refugee migrants in the UK.’. Often, petitions do more in highlighting the divides in our society rather than representing mass support for a single issue.

Understandably, aside from Trump, the war in Syria and the refugee crisis it has helped produce, has dominated the vast number of petitions and signatures over the past few weeks. However, on searching through previous petitions, it is clear that the news cycle has consistently had a major influence with clear spikes of interest on certain issues. It is therefore to be expected, if not preferable, that government takes a more considered and objective view on the vast majority of issues. Passing legislation whilst reacting to that week’s news cycle would be a dangerous way to govern. With this in mind, it is incredibly unlikely that a number of petitions can ever be successful, at least in the short term.

The online petition has been proven to be popular; the ease and speed in which you can start, publicise and sign a petition is great for our democracy. It brings people closer to the political process, can highlight important issues and has the potential to influence the decision making process.

Ironically, the immense popularity of the online petition is also the very thing that is undermining it’s true effectiveness. Unless campaigns can become more coherent, better focused, increasingly professional, they will remain easy to ignore. Not because there are not enough people are getting behind them, but because the sheer volume means that decision makers can become sanitised against them.

 

P.S. – During my research for this blog I came across some standout petitions and wanted to list a few because, frankly, they were too good to fade into obscurity. To reiterate, these government petitions, were started with the objective of them being debated in Parliament.

  • Make it illegal to wake up when it’s still dark – my heart goes out to the civil servants who would have to come up with the water tight piece of legislation. ‘It would be very difficult for Parliament to pass a law about the time that people should wake up.’
  • Stop discrimination against tall people – I’m certain this is an issue. But I wanted ‘being constantly subjected to oinks asking “what’s the weather like up there?”‘ to be read out in a debate.
  • Thoroughly ignore Donald Trump. – there are many Trump petitions but I think this is my favourite. To be ignored thoroughly
  • Local Council to Start Pruning Trees Tree Branches Around Leeds Are A Nuisance – a bit local.
  • Remaster Grand Theft Auto San Andreas for the Xbox One – I’m waiting for Championship Manager 01/02 personally
  • Make Cadbury Freddo’s 10 pence again – there is more than one of these. I’ve signed and shared all of them.
  • Ban Piers Morgan from Twitter – ban Piers Morgan.
  • McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, Subway and Nandos to start a delivery service – YES!
  • Ban fireworks except for organised events on 5th November and 1st January – THE ONLY FUN WE WILL BE HAVING IS ORGANISED FUN!
  • Stop the radio stations playing east 17 stay another day at Christmas – ‘Why was this petition rejected?’ ‘It’s about something that the UK Government or Parliament is not responsible for.’
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