Online petitions: sign in and be counted

Can online petitions ever pack as much of a punch as pen and ink? Alice-Azania Jarvis investigates

All it takes is the click of a mouse button. For most "online activists" – those of us who sit at home and join, virtually, the various protests that come our way – very little is required. We're not risking our safety on the front line, we're sitting at our desk, adding a hash tag to our tweets or joining a group on Facebook. But we're doing something – or that's what we tell ourselves.

Last week, it was Show Your Support for Egypt. This week, it's Save Our Forests. Countless pages spring up on Facebook. "Click here for a link to our petition," they say. It's so easy, and when it's done, you can sit back, smug. It's a fast-track to feeling good.

But does it make any difference? Last year, Malcolm Gladwell sent a ripple through the digital world with his insistence that it didn't. The great civil rights movement of the 1960s couldn't have achieved what it did, he said, had the internet taken the place of local networks and community organisation. No doubt he's right: the Greensboro sit-ins required the sort of intimate, involved relations forged through years of living, working, and attending church together.

"Clicktivism" has become the common, derogatory catch-all for online protest. But it's not always a fair one. Allying yourself to a cause online may be easy, but that's not to say it accomplishes nothing. Protest group Avaaz has demonstrated this only too well. With almost seven million internet members, it can propel the most obscure cause to prominence in record time. Users lend support for issues ranging from conflict chocolate to bee conservation – frequently with concrete results. When Avaaz allied with anti-trafficking charity Ecpat, it got some 310,000 people calling on the Hilton hotel group to commit to stamping out abuse in its hotels. A shaming billboard was threatened, and Hilton promptly relented.

In Britain, online activism may soon have the power to shape legislation. Ten Downing Street has long housed a page dedicated to public petitions, its effectiveness (or lack thereof) neatly demonstrated by the perpetual presence, in the final year of his premiership, of a petition for Gordon Brown to resign. But the Coalition Government has announced that any e-petitions made via the new Directgov website and boasting more that 100,000 signatures would be debated in Parliament.

Away from the traditional medium of the petition, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have all proved their worth, in terms of both organising protests and awareness-raising. UK Uncut, the direct-action group responsible for shutting down Topshop during the Christmas rush, was born as a Twitter hash tag. When a few friends sent out tweets inviting people to join them in protesting against Sir Philip Green's alleged tax avoidance, they had no idea so many would arrive. Likewise, YouTube footage from recent student demonstrations has forced the police to defend their heavy-handed tactics – in particular their treatment of the wheelchair-bound Jody McIntyre. And who could forget one of the biggest stories of the past year: the leaking of thousands of government cabals via the hacktivist website WikiLeaks.

Online activism may be easy. It may be cheap. And it may be no substitute for the old-fashioned, placard-waving alternative. But as a tool in itself, it has all kinds of potential.

Arts and Entertainment
Joe Cocker performing on the Stravinski hall stage during the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland in 2002
musicHe 'turned my song into an anthem', says former Beatle
Clarke Carlisle
footballStoke City vs Chelsea match report
Arts and Entertainment
theatreThe US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
Coca-Cola has become one of the largest companies in the world to push staff towards switching off their voicemails, in a move intended to streamline operations and boost productivity
peopleCoca-Cola staff urged to switch it off to boost productivity
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

    £17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Analyst / Helpdesk Support Analyst

    £16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is the UK's leading ...


    £20000 - £30000 per annum + OTE £50k: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 bus...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - LONDON

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000 + Car + Pension: SThree: SThree are a ...

    Day In a Page

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'