New Internationalist

Digital Revolutions - The record-breaking petition

It’s easy to get fed up with online petitions.

If, like me, you receive a constant stream of requests to sign them, you might well be wondering if there’s any point. As they become ever more common, the number of signatures that are likely to make an impact keeps going up and people sneer at them as an example of lazy ‘clicktivism’ that will never make any difference.

Internet petitions should not be relied on too much. But in April 2013 came a powerful reminder that they should not be dismissed either. A petition that was started on the spur of the moment looks to have broken records. It is possibly the fastest-growing petition of all time. The petition was started on a Monday morning and was making front page news by Tuesday.

It began on 1 April, when the British coalition government marked April Fools’ Day with the introduction of swingeing cuts to the welfare state, snatching money from some of the poorest people in the country. At the same time a tax cut for people ‘earning’ over £150,000 ($228,765) per year came into force. Redistribution from the poor to the rich rarely comes more blatantly than this.

That morning, BBC Radio 4 interviewed a benefit recipient who had been left to live on £53 ($81) per week. The next interview was with Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary. The interviewer asked him if he could manage to live on £53 per week. ‘If I had too, I would,’ he insisted.

Among the listeners left angry and upset was Dominic Aversano, a shopworker and musician. He went online to create a petition calling for Duncan Smith to live on £53 per week for a year. It would have meant a 97 per cent drop in his income.

The number of signatures shot up faster than Aversano could have imagined. By the evening, people were signing at the rate of several hundred per minute. Just before midnight, the petition topped 100,000 signatures. The next morning, two national newspapers, the Daily Mirror and the Independent, led with the story of Duncan Smith’s claim, mentioning the petition. Within a week, the petition had more than 450,000 signatures.

The online petition site Change.org said that it was the largest and fastest-growing petition they had ever hosted. Ian Duncan Smith was forced on the defensive, dismissing the petition as a ‘stunt’. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, tried to avoid the same treatment by refusing to say whether he thought he could live on £53 per week himself.

Middle-class voters who had heard claims in rightwing newspapers about the supposedly high level of benefits were suddenly confronted with the figure of £53 per week. For many of them, this has probably become the figure that will come to mind when the subject of benefits comes up. This may be the petition’s most enduring and important impact.

How did an online petition become headline news? I can imagine many people who have started petitions feeling frustrated that they received far less interest.

One factor, of course, was the topicality of the subject. The cuts were dominating the news. Ian Duncan Smith made things easier for activists with his unbelievable claim. But the nature of the petition probably also made a difference. Petitions calling for specific policy changes with regard to the cuts tend to attract lots of support, but nowhere near the level of the Duncan Smith petition. Potential signatories may feel unaffected by the policy concerned or feel cautious about expressing a view without knowing all the issues.

In contrast, Aversano’s petition poked fun at Duncan Smith’s words. It was both a piece of satire and a campaigning tool. It highlighted the reality that many ministers live in a different world from the people affected by their decisions. The Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer were all born to privilege, attending some of the most expensive schools in Britain.

One lesson to take away from this is that petitions may be more useful in drawing attention to reality than they may be in bringing about a specific change. Following the Duncan Smith petition, there was a spate of satirical petitions of this sort. When Margaret Thatcher died the following week, the Christian anarchist campaigner Keith Hebden started a petition calling for her funeral to be funded by corporate sponsorship – in line with her own neoliberal principles.

The incident is a reminder to activists to be more tactical in the use of petitions. But it’s also a reminder that some of the most effective actions begin when somebody gets angry and switches on their computer. Not everything can be planned.

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