Online Petitions, The Virtual Protest

2020 has so far, been the year of seeing your friends post links to petition after petition on their Instagram stories. We take a closer look to examine how petitions have been perceived, and its impacts.

[Image Source: Bach Nguyen on Unsplash]

By Sarah Koh

[Image Source: change.org]

2020 has been a year that has seen many socially impactful occurrences taking place, with the global pandemic COVID-19 infecting millions across the world being the most significant. 

When the disease began to spread in Singapore, many rules and allowances were introduced by the government and other institutions to help Singaporeans better cope with how the pandemic has affected their daily lives. For instance, the National University of Singapore (NUS) introduced 10 grade free modular credits (MCs) for the majority of the student population to use for the first semester of Academic Year 19/20. 

This was met with some dissatisfaction from the student population, who deemed 10 credits as too little. In light of this situation, a petition to voice their concerns against NUS was started on Change.org, “for a Gradeless Semester”.

[Image Source: change.org]

The petition was able to garner 7,200 signatures, but was not able to achieve its intended outcome.

This is just one of many online petitions that has been started and met with strong support this year. 

Like many others across the world, I was outraged by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in the US. This event spawned many online petitions, from people calling for harsher charges pressed against the officers involved, to calling for donations for the Black Lives Matter Movement. I signed many of these petitions and forwarded them to my peers hoping and expecting that they would do the same. 

What I did not expect, however, was friends scoffing at the concept of petitions, waving it off as a form of virtue signaling.

“You really think this will change policies and laws?”

“If they could change things, they would have already done it!”

I was taken aback by these cynical perspectives, but I realized that they had a point. How could individuals simply signing off on petitions lead to large scale governmental changes?

A lazy man’s form of activism?

In theory, online petitions sound like the easiest way to have your voice heard. It takes seconds to complete one. It allows people a gateway to an easily achieved sense of satisfaction from somehow contributing to a political or social cause, just by filling in one’s name and email address on a website. Perfect.

However, this has also contributed to the rise of the term “Slacktivism”, which according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is an “activity that uses the Internet to support political or social causes in a way that does not need much effort…”. This term is used often to describe people who sign petitions, and it questions how petition signing can contribute to effective citizen participation.

This begs the question, does signing petitions really equate to a lack of effort, and does it necessarily translate into a decrease of effectiveness of petitions?

Alternative form of effecting Change

Whenever we talk about wanting and fighting for change, the traditional visual that comes to the minds of many Singaporeans is physical protests at Hong Lim Park, where protesters require a permit before a protest can be held. 

Hence, when most compare this to filling a mere form on a website, they see the latter as the lazy sibling that does not want to put in the physical work. Somehow, occupying a physical space in the real world inflates the value of a social cause. 

However, there really is not that much of a difference, as the end goal for most protestors fighting for any social cause, is for their voices to be heard. With the proliferation of the Internet, I argue that showing your support and voicing your beliefs on the Internet is no different, and it should not be seen as any less than being seen and heard in real life. 

Granted, as humans we are drawn to believing what we see. However, this should not discount the efficiency of collecting voices that online petitions are able to bring about.

More Awareness, Less Results

The main reason why many are skeptical about the effectiveness of online petitions is because most of the time, they do not actually result in changes in policies as hoped. Hence, they are denounced as not being able to effect change. 

Perhaps, lone petitions are not successful in this sense. However, its largest benefit is the awareness that it is able to raise about the cause spoken about. If petitions are combined with other forms strategies to voice a collective opinion such as calling and emailing local ministers, it reinforces the public view on a certain cause, and it reaches the relevant authorities. 

As Jason Del Gandio, a professor in Communications and Social Movements at Temple University says in an interview, “In some ways it’s just the updated version of the letter-writing campaign to a representative that has been going on for years.”

In most scenarios, petitions that call for large scale changes will not be effective, regardless of the number of signatures it garners. However, the rise of a collective public voice should never be taken lightly, as it might not effect concrete change, but is able to give power to the people.