Online Petitions: Why They Fail

Isn’t it great that in just a few seconds you can “sign” a petition, get your name into the mix, feel that your name, among hundreds or thousands of others, is going to change the game? You’ve showed your values true, declared your stand. You feel a part of that whole “democratic process” thing. Except, it means nothing. Absolutely nothing. Perhaps because the petition you just signed is for an issue in Montana and you live in Saskatchewan, Canada. Or perhaps it’s for Hamilton, Ontario and you live in Victoria, BC.

Our whole business is about research and analysis of what people are saying in digital media channels and a good portion of that is around civil society issues. That includes dissecting and analysing online petitions. So here’s a reality check in regards to online petitions: they are meaningless in regards to actual change in civil society – what that means is, if you think a government is going to change a law or bring in a new law because you signed an online petition – you are mistaken. That is not going to happen. Why?

Digital Signatures Are Useless
Asking around our office showed that of our 25+ staff, each had an average of 3 email addresses. Much of our team is also¬†geographically¬†dispersed (we have offices in Calgary, Vancouver, Halifax and London, UK.) When you “sign” a petition online, your IP address is used to verify your actual location where you are signing. So, while you may very much be a resident of Kitchener, Ontario, you may be in Croydon, England on business when you sign it. You feel like a hero, but your signature became useless. It is “foreign” and therefore inadmissible.

Digital Petitions Are Not Recognised
As much as you might feel you got a good nights sleep from signing an online petition, they have no legal bearing at all in the United States, Canada or United Kingdom. They cannot be formally introduced into federal, state, provincial or municipal chambers for consideration.

But Don’t They Help With Fundraising for Government Support?
Sorry, but they don’t. At all. If you’re talking about getting money from the city of Topeka, Kansas and 90% of the signatures come from upstate New York, well, why would Council care? Those signatures have no real bearing, at all, in any legal format.

Digital Signatures Are Useless
In addition, there is no truly accepted standard by governments anywhere in the Western world in regards to a digital signature. Therefore they are¬†inadmissible. Anyone can set up multiple email addresses and pose as an individual. It takes just a few minutes. While you might treasure your person Gmail or Hotmail address, law makers don’t care.

Do Online Petitions Have Any Value?
Fortunately, they do. Mostly in terms of brand reputation and management. A number of validated IP addresses and signatures in a given country, region or city may give a company a “sense” that it has a major PR or marketing issue at hand. They are more likely to consider public opinion in this regard as they know the issue has reached a broader audience.

The Summary
We’ve analysed over 125 petitions for various clients, both digital and traditional – of all our corporate and government clients, the only ones that truly matter are those with real signatures, on paper with more realistic locations. Neither companies nor governments put much stock in an online petition. Probably not what you wanted to hear, but it’s reality. It may help in terms of product pricing or a bad product experience, but not much in terms of serious changes to government regulations or legislation. Sorry. Reality sucks sometimes. Perhaps once there is a more defined way of signing a digital or online petition, that will change, but until then, maybe get a bit more engaged before you think “signing” an online petition is your good deed for the day.

(Author: Team Effort)