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)

HM the Queen & Royal Family Sentiment Analysis

The diamond jubilee for Her Majesty the Queen starts on June 1st so we thought we’d take a light hearted look at the sentiment regarding the Queen in Canada as well as Prince Charles and Prince William from 2008 to 2012. We decided to take a historical look at these top Royals as there have been many changes and events in the world and Commonwealth countries in the past four years. As you can be seen below, HRH Prince William saw a significant uptick in positive sentiment after the announcement and Royal Wedding to Kate.  We did not include HRH Prince Harry in our research and excluded comments regarding Kate as well. Our software accounts for sockpupetting attempts to exclude such commentary.

HM The Queen | Sentiment
Sample size here was  9,000 people across Canada. We weight and account for population variations by province to provide a more equitable view of sentiment. We reduced the analysed sample size from a total of over 2.5 Million comments taken from 2008 to 2012. We believe a sample size of 9,000 individual comments per province to be a reasonable sample size.


HRH Prince Charles | Sentiment
As with Queen Elizabeth, we used the same representative methodology, but overall comment volume was less than the Queen. Thus we decided a 5,000 individual per province sample size was reasonable. A positive uptick in regards to Prince Charles in 2012 is likely attributable to his recent visit to Canada. It may be interesting to analyse this sentiment post visit.


HRH Prince William
The same methodology applied, but Prince William has a much higher volume of commentary than even the Queen and certainly Prince Charles. Positive sentiment has picked up significantly since the marriage of William and Kate.

Social Media’s Role in Aid Delivery & Programs

While there is much discussion regarding the use of social media for crowdsourcing during humanitarian crises, there are other relevant applications of social media analysis and engagement on an ongoing basis. But first, some assumptions need to be addressed – namely that there is little use of social media by non-elites in developing nations. Such an assumption has lead to some missed opportunities and more based on some of our research.

Often, in developing nations, social media services are accessed through mobile phones, either by texting to a social network or accessing it directly through an app on the phone. Non-elites or general society often access the Internet and social media services through Internet cafe’s or buying from an individual who has set up a private ISP service from their home. In our research projects in Sudan, Haiti, Benin, DRC, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries we estimated Internet use by the general population (non-elites) was on average, 43% higher than official estimates taken from reporting ISP’s in the country.

By researching and analysing social media usage by civil society (both non-state organisational actors and individuals) aid agencies, governments helping in reconstruction or aid and other organisations, can gain some key insights into topical issues. They may identify areas where aid isn’t reaching or be able to better define political atmospherics, new groups to engage with and more meaningful dialogue opportunities.

These are but some of the benefits to researching and understanding the engagement of civil society in social media today. Others become apparent when research is undertaken and aid organisations or governments can enhance their digital and public diplomacy activities.

Twitter in Developing Countries

Twitter saves a cow. Sounds funny in a Western world context doesn’t it? But in rural Kenya, that cow is a critical part of staying alive. An Al Jazeera story  shows an immediate and direct impact of the microblogging tool Twitter in Kenya. It is a direct statement of the role these technologies are starting to play in developing nations. In this case, it is a local policeman who is bringing the education of how to use this tool in meaningful ways. Access to Twitter is via a much cheaper SMS or texting gateway. Although Twitter recently announced a low-bandwidth version, SmartPhones can still be too expensive in many developing countries and SMS integration will remain a key use for sometime.

Increasingly, we are seeing how mobile apps and social media services are being accessed by mobile phones through SMS gateways. When you add in geolocation capabilities of mobile carriers, we start to see how these phones, not even advanced ones like the iPhone or Blackberry, can play an increasingly vital role in public diplomacy, digital diplomacy, aid relief, monitoring & evaluation and crisis reporting (as is done already by valuable systems like Ushahidi.)

As citizens in these countries begin to see the direct impact value of these tools, it can help governments reach out and connect more with citizens. On the downside, less amenable governments may also use the tools in more nefarious ways such as listening in or seeking opponents. Sadly, there is always good with the bad, but one can hope the good will outweigh the bad in these instances.

Twitter, Emerging Markets & Digital Diplomacy

Twitter announced on May 7th of 2012 that it has made significant changes to its software for mobile devices (iPhones, iPads, tablets and BlackBerry’s etc.) so that it uses less bandwidth than previous versions – all ostensibly to benefit users in emerging markets (read: developing nations.) The first obvious intent of such a move is for marketing purposes to drive revenues. That is of course, the initial strategy. But it has deeper implications in terms of public diplomacy or eDiplomacy.

In Moldova in 2009, citizens planned to use Twitter to start a revolution. It failed miserably. In 2009, Twitter featured prominently in the Iranian failed Green Revolution (although some research indicates most “tweets” in support of the Iran revolution were coming from non-Iranians outside Iran.) The use of Twitter by the Occupy movement and during the protests against Keystone XL Pipeline are examples more regionally. In terms of revolutions, Twitter cannot and will not create revolutions, that is the work of humans. But Twitter can, and has, played a critical role in organising and communicating. Such was the case in Egypt and during the Arab Spring as a whole.

With the app for mobile devices now to become more accessible in low-bandwidth areas, the can provide a critical tool to those in less democratic nations who want to rally people to a cause or create attention in Western nations. It is key to realize that Twitter enables a more global engagement than ever before; but that’s another blog post.

For those practicing Digital Diplomacy or eDiplomacy, this is yet another tool that becomes more readily available in terms of reach and engagement. Although it is interesting to note that most “emerging markets” that are building wireless/cellular networks often end up with better bandwidth and cheaper access to more services than found in Canada and the U.S. and many EU countries. As an example, Haiti has implemented a 3G network, rivalling that of Canadians and many American cities at comparable lower cost. Still, a lower bandwidth Twitter app is good in many ways.