Online Petitions: Futile?
October 27, 2005 1:37 PM   Subscribe

Have online petitions ever worked?

A recent post on Metafilter had reminded me of the strange little listing of names that is the online petition. So my question is simple, have there ever been cases where online petitions accomplished what they set out to do? If so, please give examples.
posted by TwelveTwo to Computers & Internet (14 answers total)
I'm not sure that's even measurable. If there's enough outcry for someone to create a petition, then people are probably also pursuing other channels for influencing decision makers. I don't think you're going to be able to isolate the effects of a petition from the effects of, for example, general "public opinion."
posted by occhiblu at 2:01 PM on October 27, 2005

So, no.
posted by jenovus at 2:09 PM on October 27, 2005

Here's a claim that online petitions elicited responses from two different companies. And the Scottish government has apparently made some official space for online petitioning.

But I agree that, in general, they're pretty useless. Most that I've seen completely lack credibility; they may not be faking signatures, but how can we tell?
posted by gorillawarfare at 2:46 PM on October 27, 2005

success! Many sci-fi fans unhappy with the cancellation of Farscape successfully petitioned and got scifi channel to spring for a final 'mini-series' to wrap up the last seasons cliffhanger.

I don't think the 'online' petition was the extent of thier efforts though.
posted by darkpony at 2:52 PM on October 27, 2005

I don't remember the details, but the anime community was celebrating the success of an online petition related to Princess Mononoke -- either the theatrical or the DVD release. claims their data collection regarding future or potential DVD releases affect studio decisions. Amazon has made the same claim. I don't know whether you'd technically define those as "petitions," but...same difference.
posted by cribcage at 2:59 PM on October 27, 2005

I recently received this in response to my email to the Dept. of Foreign Affairs. It's a reply from the Minister himself:
Thank you for your e-mail of April 1, 2005, concerning the brutal killing of Ms. Zahra Kazemi in Iranian custody. The Office of the Prime Minister has also forwarded to me your correspondence on this issue. I regret the delay in replying to you.

Canadians were deeply shocked and saddened by Ms. Kazemi's brutal treatment and death. We know that many Iranian citizens also share our concerns about these events. Iranian commissions struck by then President Mohammad Khatami and by the Majlis (Iranian parliament) cast doubt on Iran's official account that Ms. Kazemi died through an accidental fall. The revelations of Dr. Shahram Aazam, the first physician to examine Zahra Kazemi, added disturbing detail about the condition of Ms. Kazemi after her interrogation. The circumstances are simply unacceptable. Iran must fully investigate and bring those responsible to justice. The Government of Canada has forcefully and repeatedly raised the issue with the Government of Iran and will continue to pursue the Iranian government to ensure that those responsible for the death of Ms. Kazemi are brought to justice and that Ms. Kazemi's body is returned to Canada in accordance with the wishes of her family. The July 30, 2005 arrest by Iranian authorities of Abdolfattah Soltani, one of the lawyers representing the Kazemi family, is also cause for concern.

Canadians should know the extent of our actions. The following represents some highlights:

*Canada has repeatedly and consistently, to the highest levels, raised the Kazemi case with Iranian authorities. We have made clear our indignation and our demands for justice.
*Canada has asked the Iranian government to pursue an independent three-person forensic investigation into the death of Ms. Kazemi. Ultimately, a credible investigation is the only way that the disturbing questions about this case can be answered. Iran has rejected this proposal.

*Canada withdrew its ambassador to Iran twice as a strong diplomatic signal of protest. We have since returned an ambassador to Tehran, this being the only way to directly engage Iranian authorities on the Kazemi case and other issues of great consequence to Canadians, such as Iran's nuclear program.
*Canada has pursued the Kazemi case in dialogue with other governments, the European Union and United Nations bodies, and sought their support in this case as it is representative of the serious human rights violations that persist in Iran. We appreciate greatly the active assistance they have offered, and we continue to liaise with our like-minded partners to discuss developments and strategy.
*We remain in telephone contact with Mr. Stephan Hachemi, the son of Ms. Kazemi, to share details of developments. Canadian government lawyers have also engaged in a constructive, cordial and common-cause effort with Mr. Hachemi's lawyers to look at every legal avenue available. These discussions are being pursued on a regular basis.
*We have met on numerous occasions with Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, a lawyer for the Kazemi family, to discuss available avenues under Iranian law. We are continuing our dialogue with this exemplary human rights defender.
*We assisted in bringing Dr. Aazam to Canada as a refugee and have respected his need for confidentiality and safe haven. Information provided by Dr. Aazam will contribute to our ongoing efforts to achieve justice for the family of Ms. Kazemi.
Additionally, Canada placed further restrictions on bilateral engagement with Iran as a strong sign of our outrage following the inconclusive judicial appeals of May 16 and July 25, 2005. We now engage with Iranian authorities only on the Kazemi case, human rights, and the nuclear
non-proliferation question. All programs of cooperation with the Iranian government have been halted.

The death of Ms. Kazemi has highlighted for Canadians the serious problems that exist with Iran's broader human rights record, particularly in areas such as freedom of expression, treatment of prisoners, and independence of the judiciary. Canada has been active in reminding Iran of its international human rights obligations. We have led on two successful United Nations General Assembly resolutions pointing out the serious shortcomings of Iran's human rights performance. Moreover, at the opening of the 2005 session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, I personally singled out Iran, saying that it must show its willingness to address its appalling human rights record. On August 5, 2005, I again expressed Canada's concern over Iran's human rights situation, including the case of Ms. Kazemi. I called on the new Iranian government to turn words into action and to honour its commitments to both its people and to the international community.

On September 20, 2005, while at the United Nations in New York, I met with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. This meeting marked the highest level contact between Canadian and Iranian officials in years. I reiterated Canada's outrage at how the Kazemi case was handled and the family's demand that justice be rendered and that her body be returned to Canada.

Since 1996, Canadian political relations with Iran have been governed by a policy of controlled engagement. We place limits on our contacts with Iran: for instance, Iran is not able to open consulates in Canada, there are no direct air links, and export controls are applied on sensitive goods. This policy reflects our concerns about the Iranian government's opposition to the Middle East peace process, its support of terrorism, its position on nuclear proliferation and its human rights record. As I also mentioned in my statement of August 5, 2005, only meaningful change in Iran's position on human rights and nuclear non-proliferation can lead to an improvement in our relationship.

Some have suggested that Canada impose economic sanctions, such as trade or investment sanctions, in response to Ms. Kazemi's death. Experience has shown that economic measures such as these do not have the desired effect of compelling a change in another state's behaviour if they are imposed unilaterally. The Canadian legislative framework recognizes this. It allows for unilateral sanctions against a foreign state only in exceptional situations such as where there is a grave breach of international peace and security resulting in a serious international crisis.

I can assure you that I will continue to raise both Iran's record on human rights and the specifics of the Kazemi case with my counterparts at every opportunity. Iran must respond and fulfill its obligations as a member of the international community.

Thank you again for taking the time to write.


Pierre S. Pettigrew
I think that my email was, in sum with all other people's correspondence to the department, helpful in ensuring our government responded appropriately to the matter.

Long story short, it's certainly easy enough to become politically active. Might as well do it: it can't hurt!
posted by five fresh fish at 3:01 PM on October 27, 2005

So, no.
posted by jenovus

Well, no, I didn't mean it that way. I think they can be a useful tool for galvanizing supporters, and I think that an organization that can claim that X-thousand people support its cause is able to up its credibility, which helps it attract more supporters, which helps the cause gain more visibility, etc. My point was more that it depends on your definition of "worked." It's unlikely that they alone cause legislative/corporate changes, but it's likely they influence people's thinking about those changes.
posted by occhiblu at 3:09 PM on October 27, 2005

Sorry to tell you, five fresh, but I write letters for the government on occasion, just like the one above. It makes me sad, because my dad writes ministers all the time, and your chances of having it reach its intended audience is slim. Replies are usually formulated by lower level people like myself along fairly strict lines, and the few times I've managed to inject a little reality in the correspondence, it gets edited out by the time it leaves government hands. Now maybe Pettigrew did write this; I'm not sure. But I'd call it extremely doubtful.

As for online petitions, I remember the Farscape success (sorry it couldn't happen for Firefly), and I think these things only work when the medium is respected (and email gets less notice than letters because it takes less effort) or when combined effectively with other pressures, as mentioned above.
posted by dreamsign at 3:37 PM on October 27, 2005

Long story short...
Uhh...yeah. "Short." Thanks.

Your example is like saying the federal government intervened in the Terri Schiavo case because a few people wrote letters. Large-scale public relations issues don't need petitions; and although those situations might attract petitions, they're irrelevant. Petitions are for things far below the mainstream radar, like bringing back Dr. Who.
posted by cribcage at 3:44 PM on October 27, 2005

The only example that comes to my mind is something cribcage already mentioned, the Region 1 DVD release of the anime film Princess Mononoke. Disney's original announcement of their plans indicated it was going to be the English-dubbed version only, without the original Japanese track+subtitles.

However, I think that wasn't so much "online petition" succeeding as the online-petition-plus-other-avenues. The DVD forum I hung about on at the time also had threads urging polite letters to various decision-makers in Disney and whatnot, and I suspect several thousand letters--actual physical letters, not the many more emails--were mailed, phone calls logged, etc. After a couple weeks of that kind of grassroots upswell, it was announced the release of the DVD was being delayed by a few months--and when it did come out, it had both the dubbed track and the original audio, and Disney's releases of other Miyazaki's films have been of like quality.

So on overall balance, I'm going to say no as well. Signing on online petition is easy; it's when that petition is just the iceberg-tip of enough people who care to take extra efforts that results happen.
posted by Drastic at 8:30 PM on October 27, 2005

Best answer: I think if you're asking have they ever worked the question has to be yes. Making blanket statements about political tactics is a bad thing to do, since strategy arises out of the concrete situation you're acting in.

So labour start is a good example of a site that has had relative success focusing a particular group towards pressuring for wins. In this case it is supporting the organizing of workers across the world, and bringing together workers through letter writing and the like to pressure the bosses. They have some examples on the site.

Why did it work there, in some cases the amount of response was disproportionate for the country involved, they normally wouldn't get that many replies from abroad about anything. When the government and industry knows they are watched they can be more reluctant to crack down as much.

Obviously this is a limited strategy, as it is largely a defensive step and doesn't build any power and relations between those acting together. The situation in the US would be very different too with as much crap gets thrown at the leaders anyway. The dynamic it also sets up is one of trying to reason you're way out of exploitation, which obviously is limited and potentially distorting.

So I think the question isn't does it work, but when, and for what, which is how these questions should be approached in general (as an outcome of some goal your working towards rather than as its pillar).
posted by aussicht at 9:47 PM on October 27, 2005

Best answer: Snopes' take on internet petitions. To summarize, ask yourself the following about any petitions:
  • Does the petition list an ending date, when the signatures will be delivered?
  • Does the petition say who it will be delivered to?
  • Does that person have the power and authority to do anything about the problem?
  • Is there any reason that person should believe that the signatures on the petition are legitimate? (Rather than the creation of a few people with lots of time on their hands?)
  • Does that person have any reason to care what the petition signers think?
If the answer to all of these is yes, the petition might have the desired effect. (As others have mentioned above, even if the petition doesn't accomplish its stated intent, there may be other secondary benefits, though.) claims their data collection regarding future or potential DVD releases affect studio decisions.

There's some evidence to support that.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:01 AM on October 28, 2005

dreamsign: I have no doubt whatsoever that Pettigrew did not write the email. I suppose I should not have said "the minister himself" but rather "the office of the minister himself."
posted by five fresh fish at 9:32 AM on October 28, 2005

Best answer: I'd say in the vast majority of cases all online petitions end up accomplishing absolutely nothing other than making the people that signed it feel like they actually did something.

A large number of the ones I've seen fail most of the points in DevilsAdvocate's list. As in:

- they're just put up on some random petition site alongside thousands of others, many of which are "joke" petitions

- they are aimlessly directed at some large company, without regard to targeting a specific person or department

- they expect that the company will somehow magically stumble onto the petition, or be alerted to it "through the media" or something, because they certainly aren't going to actually print off the list of names and send it in

- they state no clear reason as to why the company should listen (in contrast to "the below signed names will cease buying your products beginning on such-and-such date for the period of one year if so-and-so doesn't happen") or are otherwise just completely open-ended ("we'd really like it if you did such-and-such. Pretty please?")

- they are signed by a bunch of random people that usually give no names, or fake names, or just email addresses. "Oh look, Boba Fett signed this." Yeah that does wonders for your cause.

Conclusion: Useless in all but exceptionally well-organized cases.
posted by Rhomboid at 9:58 AM on October 28, 2005

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