Online Petitions: Slacktivism at its Best

The Casey Anthony verdict caused public outrage that has been flooding the web in Facebook status updates, tweets, and online petitions. The Change.org petition created by Michelle Crowder is the fastest growing petition the website has ever hosted, with over 15,000 signatures in less than five hours and 500,000 signatures after only three days. While historically viral, this one e-petition does not mean that any real political change comes from online petitioning.

Versions of Caylee's Law are said to be in the making in Oklahoma and Florida. I am sure that other states will follow suit, but I am not so sure that the online petition had too much to do with these propositions. There has been obvious nationwide outrage over the court’s decision, a sentiment also felt by these same legislators, and their constituents, which led them to create reactive legislation.

An online petition is only as effective as the strategy and organizational tactics behind it. This means how well the petition is written and promoted, if it was sent to the appropriate recipients, who sponsors the petition, effective follow-up, and, of course, the dedication of its supporters. An e-petition can only affect real change when all of these factors are taken into account. I wonder how much strategy actually went into creating the Caylee’s Law petition. The Wall Street Journal has noted that criminal laws such as this would usually fall under state jurisdiction, yet the petition has listed the president of the United States as its recipients; a grandiose and futile target.

The media attention Crowder has gotten is phenomenal and her petition, in a very basic way, has done exactly what a petition should do: inform and gather collective support for her cause. Unfortunately, most e-petitions do not have this same effect. While Change.org has a ‘Victories’ page dedicated to their successes, it fails to provide any evidence to prove they had an impact on the respective legislation or social change.

Moreover, Crowder does not seem to have done much to follow-up on her own petition. In an interview, she was asked if she had spoken with lawmakers about the enforcement of this law. Her answer was that she had not because she did not know any; she just hoped they would agree with her. With the media attention she has gotten after only four days, she surely could have made a more appealing call to her own state legislator and urged others to do the same, as this is a critical step in boosting petitions. If everyone just waited around and hoped for their representatives to understand and agree with their sentiments, nothing would ever get done. This type of mentality is the definition of slacktivism.

The kind of ease it takes to create an online petition allows for the proliferation of frivolous causes, full of signatures by the creator’s friends. As a result, e-petitions are usually not taken seriously. The anonymity attached with e–petitions also allows for a lack of accountability, and future follow–up from politically active organizations. Petitions can be ignored while calls, letters, and protests are harder to ignore.

Petitions, paper based or online based, do not create change alone. They should be used as a way to show support for a cause, and further other types of activism. There is little to no evidence that people who sign online petitions, especially ones that are anonymous, will show the same support for more formal political initiatives, even if they are concerned about them.

Online petitioning is very different than other, more traditional forms of activism because it is too convenient. This kind of ad hoc political expression is being used as a substitute for more effective political action. Activism is supposed to be hard-work. The energy you put forward for a cause is a direct result of how serious and passionate you are about it. While it can be used strategically as a tactic to gain broad constituent support for a cause, alone it is not a means to an end.

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