You feel like you accomplished something… but did you?
Some are. Some aren’t. But they do share a common characteristic: in my opinion, most are ineffectual.
And that can harm the very cause you’re attempting to support.
Let me explain why that is.
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While there are some online petition services that many feel are legitimate, there are many that are not. At best, signing such a petition won’t actually do anything. More damaging, signing a petition — any petition — makes you feel like you did something, and thus you’re less likely to take more significant action having a higher likelihood of having an impact.
How petitions go wrong
There are several reasons you need to be extra careful and fully aware before you choose to use an internet petition to make your opinion heard. These are just a few.
- Spam. Many sites ask for your email address. It can be a reasonable security measure to ensure you’re a real person and avoid “stuffing” the petition with multiple fraudulent “signatures”. Unfortunately, it can also be an easy way to collect your email address and begin sending you lots of spam. Not only do they have your email address, but they also know a cause you feel strongly about.
- Trickery. I’ve seen several polls and petitions that, once you’ve signed or voted, are nothing more than a way to take you to a sales pitch that may or may not relate to the issue at hand.
- Ineffectiveness #1. When you sign an internet petition, you’re relying on the provider of that petition to do something with the results. They may or they may not. If the petition site is plastered with ads, be suspicious that they are more interested in you clicking on an ad than in doing anything with the collected signatures.
- Ineffectiveness #2. Any legitimate organization receiving the result of an internet petition will probably ignore it. As they should. It’s much too easy to fabricate, mis-collect or misrepresent data collected this way. Even for legitimate internet petitions, “voter fraud” is both rampant and difficult to control. Any recipient of an internet petition that “gets” this will most likely thank the providers of the information and then throw the results away.
How it harms
Online petitions make you feel good. It feels like you’ve done something.
But as the previous points suggest, it’s quite possible you’ve not accomplished anything at all — similar to “liking” or commenting “thoughts and prayers” on a social media post.
The problem, then, is that feeling like you have “done something”, you may elect not to do something else that could make a real difference: things like writing a real letter, making a phone call, or making a donation.
That the online petition might distract you from doing something that could be effective is its real danger. That actively harms the very cause you’re hoping to support.
There are some legitimate venues
If you look at the comments on the original version of this article, you’ll find mention of many petition sites and services that people feel to be legitimate and effective.
I hope they are.
Seriously, if you feel that your government or other institution is actively listening to and acting on the results from services like change.org, 38 degrees, and others, then fantastic! Seriously, if those petition sites cause change to happen, that’s truly awesome, and I wish you well.
I remain skeptical. It’s just too easy for those organizations to pay lip service to petition results and completely ignore them.
All the while, it has distracted you from doing something more tangible and more effective to support your cause.
If you feel strongly about an issue, use more traditional means:
- Write a letter — a real one on paper — and mail it
- Make a phone call
- Make a donation
- Volunteer your time
The fact that each of these isn’t as easy as an internet petition is exactly why they’re more effective.
If you take the time to do these things, it’s clearly an important issue for you, and you’re more likely to be heard.
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45 comments on “Why Online Petitions are Often (and Still) a Bad Idea”
THANK YOU LEO!!!!
Thank you for posting this. I try and try to explain to people why these petitions are stupid (especially the e-mail ones that say “add your name and forward this”). Now I’ll just send them this link.
You are truly a wonderful person and a savior to all mankind.
In all the writeups on internet petitions, no one mentions what I call the “geometric duplication of signatures”. If Joe Smith starts a petition and sends it out to 100 people, his name will appear on all 100 petitions. If those 100 people send the petition out to 100 people each, Joe Smith’s name will appear on 10,000 petitions and so on. And, a similar multiplier effect will occur for everyone who signs, albeit to lesser degrees depending on where their names appear in the list.
To me, this is the biggest reason for NOT participating in internet petitions.
There is another factor in signing internet petitions if you are from outside the US. If you sign an internet or email petition that makes a criticism of the US in any way, it can come up if you have to apply for a working visa. This actually happened a friend of mine.
Leo, I always reply to my Dying with Dignity petitions & was really amused when they told us how to do multiple entries to a news paper petition ! [there is life in us old dogs yet ]
Don’t YOU dare retire, or we will have to follow you to US, & I havn’t won the lottery yet.
Do you think Facebook petitions and Care2 petitions are any better? I would be interested in your comments on how they solve or do not solve the problems you mentioned.
Can you please give me some credible links that will take me to any of this information? I work with several animal rescues and transports, and therefore see so many yousign, youcare, care, etc. petitions – and I’ll admit having added my name to many – that I’m really trying to get to the bottom of this. You make a good point about subsequent apathy after signing a petition, and I can get behind that, but I’m wondering if the petitions creators are frauds from the beginning; pulling on heartstrings when all they really want is for people to click on their page to line their greedy pockets. Thanks in advance for any help.
The problem is that there is no way to tell. That’s why it’s best just to stay away from it.
If mine is the first name on the list, on how many lists will my name have appeared if they all get 100 entries? Some mathematical genius might care to work it out. But I can only legitimately sign a petition once, so the lists are invalid anyway.
My wife is a British citizen and she was asked to sign a perition. You were sent a specific form on which to record your vote and given the e-mail address of the government department that was being petitioned. That makes sense.
Maybe those Internet petitions won’t get enough signatures. We want the gas prices lowered and there were petitions for that. Also I want to make my public transportation better and also have unfair rules repealed like portable DVD players allowed on the buses as long as those people with them use headphones and don’t distract others with it. I also think that high gas prices cost me driving lessons.
There are SOME good uses. Mainly as feedback. For instance: if a facebook petition to save whales has 1 millon signatures, you can tell that the issue has public opinion. Now, the petition might do nothing, BUT some politician might be able to leverage this and will do something to get votes.
(Just like I KNOW that not many people care to Save the Woolly Mammoth)
In Australia we have the ‘Get Up’ organisation which often does online petitions. They can take it to whatever level of government and say ‘there are a lot of VOTING people who want logging stopped, is this a good hint?’
But they’re the exceptions to the rule.
What about this one then?
Of course, regarding many petitions, especially on Facebook, I absolutely agree with you.
I just gave my address and country and real name to an online petition site.. was it legitimate?? I think it was care2…
Don’t paint petition sites with the same brush until you do some research. It depends on which petition site you use. There ARE effective sites, CARES2 is one, several political sites sponsor petitions. You have to sign up and have your personal information on file to sign. It DOES work. Sites like http://org2.democracyinaction.org/o/6931/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=13214 are legitimate.
I never sign the email petitions that ask you to forward to some particular address when the number of signers reaches 100. There is nothing to stop me from copying the phone book to it and the recipient knows that. Those get hit with the delete button or go into the Spam folder.
I am a avid ANIMAL ADVOCATE, and sign petitions constantly for the betterment of their lives and the abuse to stop. I DO BELIEVE that petitions make a difference and that REAL PEOPLE care. I rarely receive ‘junk mail’ and have NEVER had any problems due to the petitions I have signed OR shared. Please take Leos’ advice with a ‘grain of salt’, he doesn’t know EVERYTHING ABOUT EVERYTHING.
I’m afraid in this rare instance you are off beam.
In the UK we have a high profile organisation called 38 Degrees which has proven to be very effective and have certainly influenced the UK Government on several issues. You fill out a form which they prefill with your Member of Parliament. I have proof of the effectiveness as several times I have letters from my MP responding to the questions raised in the petition. He happens to be the Minister for Foreign Affairs, former leader of the Conservative Party, so no doubt his office prepares the letters but it does show that the petitions are taken seriously.
There is also another, Government organisation, that encourages individuals to raise petitions.
I might have agreed with you back when you first posted this comment, but I definitely don’t agree now. In fact, this is dated enough that I would suggest that you take it down.
Legitimate petition sites communicate with us regularly, reporting the victories and losses. The numbers of victories have increased noticeably these days. Care2, Credo, Avast, NRDC, Union of Concerned Scientists, Daily KOS, Change.org, Naral, Move On, SumOfUs, Ultraviolet Action, Change.org, MomsRising.org are all legitimate, active and worthy of support. Please don’t discourage people from participation in our democracy. They have enough reasons to zone out as it is.
We all agree that email petitions are a joke.
However, valid online (web site) petitions do serve a purpose. Even the U.S. government has gotten in on the idea. The White House has an online pettion portal. Of course, one has to wonder if anything is really accomplished by such things.
Leo’s comment about getting people to write a letter instead is spot on.
I disagree with you with regards to online petitions.
Here in the UK we have 2 – 3 web sites that handle online petitions, and we know they work as they are often quoted both in the press and in our parliament. These agencies do a great job and they are purely non-profit.
Secondly again here in the UK we also have an online petition site run by the UK government which enables any citizen to open a petition and if they gain over 100,000 votes then the matter is taken up in parliament.
So before putting everything in 1 basket please do a bit more investigation. This is important because you have a large user base who look to you for advice
This comment of Leo is 9 years old! Things changed since 2005 – in digital standard about 100 years? – and petitions are approved on other media by now.
Thank God that Leo has retired! I don’t like people who search for reason to do nothing and that are old in their behaviour, not of age! That are the first who would search for reasons to do nothing against climate change, etc., but want to calm down their bad conscience!
Every online petition is a chance for the live of a pet, a wild-life or even human being or the existence of a nationalpark or forrest!
And there are 1000 voices better than 1 letter of an retired MS programmer, which says it all, btw ;)))))))) (I’d like to say the recepient of the letter, looooool, “but it’s from me, Leo”)
For the record I still believe internet petitions are a bad idea.
Online petitions may not be as effective as other methods such as writing your Congressperson and in some cases might be counterproductive as it might lead to complacency, but I recently participated in an online petition which succeeded in getting to the eyes of the intended recipients, and they complied with the requests of the petition. Online petitions are not clearly a black or white thing.
Couldn’t agree more.I can’t attend every rally or protest so I will add my name to any petition that for me has merit. There is enough apathy in the world today.
Leo, I do think your blanket condemnation of e-petitions is somewhat outdated. A lot depends on how well the petition is organised. Of course, if there is no protection against duplication or fraudulent entries, then an e-petition’s credibility is reduced, however that applies no less to and old-fashioned paper petition, in which such protections and checking are possibly even less easy to carry out.
In Britain, both the UK and Scottish Parliaments conduct e-petition systems in which the veracity of every signature is carefully checked and thus they are able to carry some real force, requiring action to be taken in response when a certain threshhold is reached (I think it’s 100,000 in the case of UK Gov). And less official organisations such as the previously mentioned 38-Degrees and World Development Movement (soon to become “Global Justice Now”) also have well organised and well conducted e-petitions which genuinely do carry weight and are therefore respected by politicians and others at whom they are aimed.
So I think you should reconsider your position on this, and consider modifying your opinion to suit the changing times in which we live, and possibly work toward giving some positive guidance as to how to ensure the veracity, and therefor the credibility and effectiveness, of an e-petition system, rather than simply condemning out of hand the whole process.
With all due respect, Leo, I disagree with you and the majority of people commenting on this subject. Petitions involving political, animal welfare and other issues can be very important and very effective. Corporations care deeply about their reputations, if only because a bad reputation can cause a loss of profits and politicians care deeply about their reputation if only because it can affect their chances of reelection. Petitions involving animal welfare and our environment can also be very, very effective. I see it every day and I am actively engaged in the signing of such petitions. I don’t do Facebook, Twitter or any other social websites because I value my privacy and I will not allow myself to be exploited for corporate profits or market share like some kind of commodity. If signing a petition is ineffective I suggest that one should either choose their petitions carefully or develop the common sense and intelligence necessary to realize just exactly what it is that he or she is signing. I honestly believe that you are doing your readers a disservice by suggesting that signing petitions is a waste of time. I also suggest that to be apathetic to such causes that create petitions is to make matters worse by doing absolutely nothing about the things that matter to us on a personal basis and as citizens of our nation. Apathy is the destroyer of all nations.
I certainly don’t advocate apathy! :-)
1) Please distinguish between petitions (in person, on paper) and online petitions. My opinion stands regarding online petitions. While there are some that may be valuable, by far the majority are a waste of everyone’s time.
2) The real issue is that you think you’ve done something when you haven’t. My position: instead of signing some petition of unknown efficacy, do something you know will make a difference: write a letter (on paper), pick up the phone, even sending an email to a government official is likely to have incrementally more impact than signing an online petition.
So, absolutely do something – I just don’t believe that something should be an online petition.
Things like crowd source funding are a way better way to go. It’s really meaningless to forward email petitions, or click something on a webpage. Crowdsource funding requires people to put down a little cash and it’s a more effective way to support important causes.
Hello. I was just wondering what you would suggest as an alternative? I realize, like many other people, that most politicians will probably never look at the petitions that end up on their desks but what else can we do? Many of the problems that occur and many of the atrocities that we hear about are miles away from where most of us live. Petitions provide us a link towards these issues and you’ll never really know if anything will come out of it unless you give it a try. I see your point about scams and all but there are trustworthy sites available. There are so many problems in America and worldwide: even if it is a losing battle isn’t it still worth the try?
A letter or a phone call to your representatives would be one alternative. Politicians seem to be more sensitive to the requests of people concerned enough to take the time to phone or write.
I mentioned it in the article: write physical letters, pick up the phone and call them … heck, schedule a visit to their office if it makes sense. In general the harder it is for you to it, the more of a commitment it represents, and the more seriously these folks should take it.
So then the question arises: have you personally ever done any of those things instead?
And if you still want to sign an online petition after reading this article use a throwaway email address. Then if/when the spam starts to arrive you can just delete that email address.
Consider using different throwaway addresses for all sites, then if a site gets hacked, immediately update to a new throwaway while you are changing your password, then delete the old one. That also stops the hackers who try your email address at other sites in the hope of hitting a home run.
I signed an online petition for what I thought was a good cause ie to help get an innocent guy in prison a new trial. I think they needed 200,000 for it to go to Obama. But now I’ m on a crazy petition mailing list and ever few days I am asked to sign the craziest petitions ever like “Don’t let them stop having a 2:30 pm ferry to Comox BC from Powell River” or something equally stupid. They need 5000 signatures to get it to the BC Ferry Dept. They look like causes that would help one person stick to their usual shopping schedule. I guess anyone can start one for any purpose. Worst of all, after you sign one and hit enter the next page will ask for a donaton of $25, $50, $150 or “more”. There’s a sucker born every minute
Looks like you’ve confirmed Leo’s first reason why online petitions are a bad idea. I’d mark the petitions as spam and hope the spam filter learns to recognize those kinds of messages as spam. I wouldn’t recommend you click the unsubscribe button if there is one. The “unsubscribe” link is very likely a lie – it just gets you MORE spam.
I started 2 petitions on different petition sites. The first, Avaaz, allowed me to gather just over 200 signatures in 2 weeks and the second one lasted only 3 days. Both voted not to accept my petition. There was no graphic pictures, no slander etc. The subject was to Ban Sharia Law in Australia. Guess freedom of speech has changed
Freedom of speech is a guarantee that the government or government agencies won’t restrict speech. People are free to do what they want on their property and media they control including deleting comments or posted content which the site owner disagrees with. Freedom of speech in this case allows you to post those on your own website or on the website of someone who allows you to.
Not at all. Freedom of speech doesn’t apply to web sites other than your own. Web sites – even internet petition web sites – are not required to allow anyone to post or say just anything. You can set up your own web site for that. (Caveat: all depends on the laws in your own country, of course.)
I’ve signed probably one or two petitions a month, and I suddenly started wondering if I was giving my info out to maybe not-so-kosher parties. So I started looking for info on this. Thank you for your article ! One thing I never would do is forward the link to people I know. I felt that would be a violation of their privacy.
From now on, I won’t be signing these, or anything else that asks for my email address, unless I’m sure of who they are !
Thanks for your information !!
(P.S. I read a little further into your own info, and I appreciate that you put your time and effort into research, etc., on varying topics, products & I’m not sure what else, but hope to read further about you when I have time.)
Thank you, again.
Whether you think you can trust them or not, it’s always a good idea to use a throwaway email address you use only for sign-ups. When that becomes inundated with spam, get a new one.
I take Leo’s points, but he’s throwing the baby out with the bath water. I do sign online petitions and will continue to do so. I am fairly computer literate and use the internet a lot, for email, research, hobbies, and political activity (Green Party and proud of it). Most petitions that reach 1 million signatures do so because they, as well as being important, have great emotional appeal too. AVAAZ, Change.org and (in the UK) 38 Degrees, are responsible organisations which would probably be charities too if they were’nt barred in many countries as political. No advertising, no clickbait. Crowdfunded. Petitions need to be able to authenticate their signatures, which means viable contact details. Petitions of a million are often (not always) associated with really important causes that attract all the other sorts of activism that Leo is advocating instead – they reinforce each other. Very recently, massive worldwide petitions on plastics pollution have been remarkably effective in achieving rapid changes in industrial production, e.g. removal of polypropylene, which is very poorly biodegradeable, from teabags. Currently petitions are playing an important partin the UK – along with all the other activism – in trying to get a second referendum on Britain’s shambolic and disastrous exit from the EU, which, as of one important developmennt today, I now believw will be (democratically) stopped. And no, I don’t just sign petitions. I send money, and write to my MP and others. And I was on the anti-brexit march last month along with 700,000 others (police estimate of numbers). AND I look after my computer, and have never had any significant malware in 20 years on the internet.
Given the responses I’ve gotten from my Congressman when I’ve sent emails, letters, and the occasional phone call, I don’t believe an online petition would even be noticed, let alone acted upon.
BTW, he’s the one pushing to abolish the IRS. It isn’t worth the aggravation of risking my privacy of flooding my inbox with spam.
You wouldn’t be risking spam if you use a throwaway email address. I’m not advocating online petitions. I just thought that point need clarifications as I never use my real email address when corresponding with entities I don’t fully trust.
So very few people bother to send a petition by “Snail Mail” these days, that many times the target organization will weight (sometimes, very heavily weight) SnailMailed-On-Paper petitions against the electronic version (e.g., one “paper” petition might be considered to be worth 100 electronic petitions).
The reasoning here is that for every one person who takes the time and trouble to write in, there are assumed to be (say) 100 who feel the same way… but just don’t bother to write in.
So! Not only is sending your petition by “Snail Mail” more effective, it can actually be MUCH more effective! :o
Problem with online petitions is that some people sign then not knowing what they’re about.
I’ve worked with many government agencies and typically they consider a petition as ONE person’s voice regardless of the number of people who sign them.
Best way to effect change is to write a personal e-mail or snail mail and tell them not only if you support or do not support an issue, tell them how it effects your personally.
If you disagree with something the government is doing, provide them an alternative. They will appreciate that more than just saying I don’t like this.
When I learn of an issue I feel strongly enough about, and I want my opinion known, I write/send a letter/email to the appropriate entity, be it my U.S. Representative and Senator/POTUS, my state legislator(s)/Govenor, my county/community leaders, or some corporation/organization. If enough people do as I do, and take similar action, my effort will not be in vain because my voice will then be heard, even if it does not obtain my desired result. The important thing to me is that I be heard, and that the public will governs.