E-petitions: promoting slacktivism or participation?

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Louise Wilson

Of the many changes this new UK Government has made, or announced it will make, so far, perhaps one of the more positive aspects is the establishment on a new Petitions Committee and system.

Whilst the ability to petition Parliament has been around for decades, in July this year a system to allow e-petitioning was launched. Any UK citizen can now open, sign and publicise a petition online, which will be registered on the UK Parliament website immediately. This differentiates it from other websites, such as change.org, as it does not require petitioners to physically deliver their document.

So Westminster has now caught up with the Scottish Parliament, and it is a positive step in terms of modernising many of the institution’s archaic traditions. This is a turn for the democratic – with much of Britain now online, it makes sense to allow the electorate to engage with the Government and Parliament in this space too.

This new e-system is not without its criticisms, however, By making the process more open, it automatically means it is easier to garner support for, shall we say, less serious petitions. With only 10,000 signatures, the government must issue a response to any petition. This will take up resources, and whilst we can hope only worthy petitions would reach this threshold, other countries’ experiences have shown this isn’t always the case.

Take for instance the petition in the US to build a Death Star back in 2013. It received over 34,000 signatures, therefore requiring an official response. Whilst the US Government successfully turn this into some positive PR, it is easy to imagine other scenarios in which petitions are simply wasting Government time. And even those that do not reach 10,000 have to be considered by the new Petitions Committee – potentially detracting from more serious issues.

The ease with which a petition can be created and signed may also encourage a rise in slacktivism and clicktivism. By e-signing a petition, a person may believe they have played their part and so no further action is required. This train of thought has pervaded much of the research undertaken by academics in internet and politics for some time. There is a fear that people will trade in physical, pro-active campaigning for a few clicks or a button. After all, it is far easier to do without feeling like you’ve done nothing – but it is also far less effective a method of advocacy. Arguably, the same could be said for traditional petitions, but the difference is that many of us still separate online presence from IRL. We might put less thought into signing something over the internet than we would with pen and paper.

Despite the issues, e-petitioning could still prove to be a very useful resource. It opens up the conversation, and by allowing information to be shared via social media, might encourage participation. Studies have suggested that we are more likely to engage with something a friend has posted online than from another source (albeit the online friend must also be an IRL friend, according to these same studies).

And while the occasional daft petition might come up, so might a stroke of genius. For example, among a list of Holyrood petitions deemed successful, one can find: reinstalling a railway to the Borders, clarifying grant guidelines for Historic Scotland, and protecting Wemyss Ancient Caves. Petitions can also trigger action from governments before they are officially taken forward – usually recognisably by a withdrawal.

This move online ought to be celebrated. At the very least, all petitions will receive some consideration by the Committee, and at best might trigger a debate, and real, tangible change. It is a step forward for both modernisation and democracy in an institution that holds old values dear and is often accused of not listening to the public between elections.

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