Online petitions flood our email, but how much difference can a signature make?
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On any given day, our inboxes are inundated by requests to sign online petitions. And sometimes we oblige: Earlier this month more than 100,000 people signed a petition protesting Jimmy Kimmel’s recent “Kids’ Table” segment, which featured a child who suggested that we “kill everyone in China.” This petition was posted on the White House website (and will get an official response because of the number of signatures it reached within 30 days), but in the online campaign world, Change.org looms large: The site has more than 45 million users, and about 25,000 campaigns are posted every month. All you have to do is fill out a few questions, and a petition is instantly ready to share with the world.
But what do all those signatures actually do? Does Change.org really provoke change?
The answers, of course, depend on whom you ask. While Change.org co-founder Benn Rattray has said that his site “can be the most influential social-change agent in the world,” others charge it as the worst example of slacktivism. Either way, a site boasting more than 45 million users can’t be judged in a blanket fashion; some campaigns have reverberated both off- and online and yielded tangible change, while others have only empty signatures to boast—and in some cases, not even very many of those.
Some of the most effective Change.org petitions, especially when it comes to women’s issues, take on a big company rather than a politician or judge. Cindy Butterworth, a 60-year-old high-school library assistant in Rochester, NY, started a petition urging Verizon to reconsider their refusal to waive their cancellation fees for domestic-violence victims. This small move is often essential to a victim’s safety—especially if the abuser shares the account and can trace the victim’s calls and location.
Although she’d been involved in her school’s union, Butterworth had never stepped onto a national platform. But when she heard of another successful campaign against Bank of America’s consumer fees, she decided to create her own. Her petition eventually garnered 200,000 signatures, and Verizon reversed its decision.
“I think it was because I took on Verizon, this global, recognizable company,” she says. “It wasn’t a small community effort.”
Butterworth also believes her personal story helped: Her sister had been a victim of domestic violence and had suffered when Verizon refused to waive her fees. Shelby Knox, director of Women’s Rights Organizing at Change.org, agrees. She wrote in an email that “a personal connection is key—which makes sense, since the cornerstone of feminism is that the personal is political.” Knox added that a successful campaign is “easily understandable—a good explanation of the problem, a clear explanation of the solution.”
In some cases, that means using numbers to your advantage. During the 2012 elections, three teen girls from Montclair, NJ, learned in a civics class that it’d been 20 years since a woman had moderated a presidential debate. So they pointed a finger at the male-dominated Commission on Presidential Debates on Change.org. Their request was simple: Add a woman to the roster. After 122,000 signatures, the Commission announced that Candy Crowley would moderate the second debate.
“It’s all about representation,” says Sammi Siegel, one of young women who started the petition. “You can’t be what you can’t see, and finally seeing women on the presidential stage asking the questions was inspirational.”
Of course, neither of these successful campaigns stood on its own. Both Butterworth’s and Siegel’s campaigns were coupled with direct contact with the adversary in question. Butterworth, for example, had spoken with Verizon multiple times and eventually used a personal connection to get the attention of a Verizon executive. In Siegel’s case, the Commission never said whether the decision was a direct result of the petition, but the campaign led to media coverage and other high-profile women demanding the same. In the end, the public shaming, rather than the number of signatures, was probably what convinced Verizon and the Commission to change their ways. So without a healthy ecosystem to support petitions, campaigns are likely to fail.
This fact is something Jessie Losch, 28, an actor and nanny from North Hollywood, CA, learned the hard way. She’d taught a class for third-graders on writing to elected officials, and included Change.org in her curriculum. At the time, a high-schooler from Michigan was soliciting signatures to give the documentary Bully a PG-13 rating so it could reach its targeted audience. Nearly all of her students signed it, and the campaign was eventually victorious. “The kids were so technologically able and connected that it really took off for them,” she says. “They were so excited to see their own name as part of it.”
Yet, when Losch decided to start her own campaign against a line of Skechers shoes called “Daddy’s Money,” it fell flat. Offended by the sexism implicit in the name and accompanying marketing campaign, she argued about it with friends, who suggested she start a petition—but she could only draw 77 people to sign on to her cause.
“I did not put enough thought into it,” she admits. “I really wrote it in the heat of anger.” Instead of a detailed story that pulled at the heartstrings, like Butterworth’s, her “letter” to Skechers was one sentence long. Losch also acknowledges that her cause may not have struck a universal chord.
“As much as I really stand by it and I think Skechers is doing a disservice to girls, it’s not as big as animal abuse or sweatshops.” (Or, say, domestic violence.) And when it came down to it, Losch didn’t feel entirely comfortable self-promoting on social media, a skill that’s necessary to propel a petition outside of the Change.org bubble.
“I’m not great at Twitter,” she says. “Had I embraced technology and not been nervous about, it may have worked better.”
Knox agrees that when “a campaign captures the imagination of Twitter … it usually corresponds to an uptick in signatures.” But social-media literacy isn’t the end-all, be-all of a petition’s fate. Campaigns get traction anywhere from “email to media coverage to public events,” she says. “There’s no magic recipe for making a campaign go viral.”
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