Online Petitions A Power for the Anonymous Masses?

Online petitions: More than “clicktivism”?
Online petitions: More than “clicktivism”? | © asrawolf - Fotolia.com

Expressing a political opinion with just one click of the mouse – online petitions are very trendy at the moment. Providers are ten a penny and more and more people are making use of their services. Not everybody, however, is so confident about the success of “clicktivism” or mouse-click activism.

A somewhat one-sided television report about hunting was screened on ZDF, one of Germany’s major public service TV stations – one-sidedly negative. Max Götzfried, a lawyer and hunter, found the whole thing unfair. He had expected a more respectable form of journalism from a public service broadcaster of this calibre. So what was he to do? In the past he would have sent a letter of complaint to the viewers comments department at ZDF. Maybe a few other friends of the hunt would have got their act together and also written a letter. It would probably not have been that many. Götzfried, however, decided to adopt a different approach – he posted his letter of complaint openly on the Internet – and launched an online petition.

Six weeks later he had collected 72,000 signatures. Making the most out of the support from tens of thousands of his hunting colleagues, he submitted the complaint to the German Broadcasting Council. And lo and behold – the council, which is responsible for assessing the reporting on public service stations in Germany, provided ZDF with a few “pieces of advice”. This is a major breakthrough for the protesters.

New opportunities for smaller initiatives

Online petitions are very popular – even if it is not only about misleading reporting on TV, but more about people’s dissatisfaction with political decisions and initiatives. On open platforms like openPetition.de, Avaaz.org or change.org users have the possibility to write about what they are annoyed about and to collect signatures for their cause. “Today they can achieve a much greater rate of dissemination for their concern with considerably less cost, effort and manpower,” says Anita Breuer, political scientist at the German Development Institute. “It has become so much cheaper these days to disseminate information, in particular, due to the sharing options provided by the social networks like Facebook and Twitter, etc. This also enables the voices of smaller NGOs and initiatives to be heard and their cause to be noticed.”

Whether these online petitions actually have any influence is for the moment doubtful. Only when enough people sign the petition and the media, for example, report about the petition and, in doing so, attract a certain amount of public attention – only then will the online petition, under certain circumstances, be heard. They can build up public pressure. Whether the addressee of the complaint, for example, a political decision-maker, then actually bows down to the will of the anonymous masses, is in most cases up to his own discretion. “Politics has always been impressed with big numbers,” says Jörg Haas from the Campact online portal. Nevertheless his organisation does not solely rely on the anonymous masses on the Internet.

Lending a face to the signatures

“Getting involved via mouse-click is just the first step. As soon as the signatories show their face, the whole thing becomes much more effective than an online petition without a face,” says Jörg Haas. That is why his organisation is trying to get the campaigns off the Internet and onto the streets by means, for example, of protest and participatory promotions. It is, however, not just this offline mobilisation that makes Campact different from other portals like Avaaz.org or change.org. It also stands out because Campact maintains a firm political stance on many issues, for example, its commitment to regenerative energies.

Stephan Bröchler, political scientist at the University of Darmstadt, said that fundamentally this was not a problem, “It is important that all platforms reveal their political positions.” This can, however, result in a portal not being open to all the users’ petition suggestions and in it allowing its editorial desk, rather than the users, to decide which campaigns it should launch. “For example, we would not launch a petition on the subject of peace in Gaza – the influence on this political process radiating from Germany is in this case much too slight,” says Jörg Haas from Campact.

Is this the end of people’s disenchantment with politics?

The online petition instrument has already arrived in the German parliament, the Bundestag. People can submit their grievance online at epetitionen.bundestag.de. “When comparing parliaments on an international level this actually puts Germany in the top group,” says political scientist, Stephan Bröchler. On the other hand, he assesses the civil-society sector of online petitioning and campaigning in a different way, “Here there is a definite need to catch up. In Germany many people are only now beginning to discover the new instrument.”

This is also confirmed by the current reports from the various providers. All portals report growing user figures. According to them, more and more people are getting involved online, either for or against a cause. Is this the end of people’s disenchantment with politics? “Surveys have shown that those people who get involved politically on the Internet are the people who were already interested in politics anyway and who were already involved. These people simply use the Net as an additional instrument,” says political scientist, Anita Breuer. “The hope that Web 2.0 would also motivate people who previously had not been interested in politics and had been apathetic has so far clearly been in vain.”