‘DELIVER the Living Wage in 2014’; ‘Legislate Bereavement Leave for the Death of a Child’; ‘Stand Against Russian’s Brutal Crackdown on Gay Rights’. Just three of the e-petitions currently available for support on Change.org, one of the worlds largest campaign platforms. Laudable causes, you’ll no doubt agree: online petitions reach so many people that they must surely be making a difference.
But how about the petition begging One Direction to ‘Write a song about cyberbullying,’ which has more than 15,000 signatures? Or the one demanding that Katie Hopkins be removed ‘from all programmes and interviews’? Nearly 95,000 people have added their name, making it one of the most popular petitions on the site. Are these petitions as valid as any other? They’re given the same status on public campaign website Change.org, where any Tom, Dick or Henrietta can start a petition and collect signatures.
When the government announced in August 2011 that e-petitions with 100,000 signatures or more could be debated in the House of Commons, the campaign floodgates opened. By the following summer a total of 36,000 petitions had been submitted via Parliament’s own e-petition website, and the numbers have continued to rise. The world of petitions is now so crowded that sensible, useful campaigns become lost in a sea of shouts to sack Jeremy Clarkson or make Gwyneth Paltrow Queen. With no filter on applications, the net effect is that genuinely valid petitions are diluted by petty grudges and half-baked grievances.
Even if a petition reaches 100,000 signatures, the government’s pledge is only that they ‘could’ be debated in the Commons. In fact more than half are deemed ineligible, and few of the remainder are tabled for discussion. These jostle for position among the debates already on the backbench agenda, as MPs have been allocated no additional time for e-petitions. Of course there are successes (Jane Austen will appear on the new £10 note because of a campaign conducted largely – although not exclusively – online) but most e-petitions will sink without a trace.
Such is the passion of those starting campaigns, that they rarely seem to pause to check whether there is already a petition in place. Thus Change.org features several petitions against The Sun’s Page Three, three on gender neutral toys, and half a dozen on busking rules. Ironically a petition on HM Government’s e-petition site requesting that moderators ‘more actively prevent duplicate e-petitions’ has been rejected on the grounds that ‘there is already an e-petition about this issue.’
Instead of blindly signing your name to every petition that pops up on your newsfeed, why not just pick one or two causes you’re passionate about, and do something practical to support it? At the very least it would stop clogging up everyone’s social media feeds with auto-generated appeals for signatures. I’m sure I’m not alone in being irritated by them: in fact there’s probably a petition about it.
Clare Mackintosh is a freelance feature-writer, columnist and crime novelist, and a former Police Inspector. Follow her on Twitter @claremackint0sh or read her blog at www.claremackintosh.com/blog