Rhodri Marsden: Crazy to empower people just for joining a Facebook group

Click to follow

The number 100,000 sounds like a lot, and in some situations it undoubtedly is: 100,000 quid in the bank or 100,000 ants in the kitchen would be cause for considerable celebration and consternation respectively.

But in the context of the internet, 100,000 is nothing. You still see breathless news bulletins reporting that thousands of people have joined some Facebook group advocating, say, death to Justin Bieber, without mentioning that nearly a million have joined a group called "I screamed your name and you didn't hear me, thanks for making me look stupid".

Registering approval or disapproval of anything online requires a few imperceptible finger movements and almost no brain activity. And against this backdrop, the Government is moving forward with a plan for 100,000 online petition signatures to trigger a process of consideration for a Commons debate.

The evidence against the worth of such petitions is right there in the previous government's online archive. Under the new rules, precisely eight would have come to the attention of the relevant backbench committee; these include one demanding that the Red Arrows be allowed to fly at the 2012 Olympics (they were never banned) and another furious that £100m of public money is being spent on a "mega mosque". (It never was.)

Sensible but unpopular policies become unworkable if they end up being vetoed by petition – as road-pricing effectively was in 2007 when 1.8 million people said they didn't like it – but we eagerly thumbed up proposals for a public holiday the day after Remembrance Sunday. Of course we did; we love holidays, and don't like being taxed. This isn't news, but petitions make it news.

The rest of the archive is padded out with swivel-eyed lunacy ("tar and feather the traitors who handed our country to the EU on a plate") and weak stabs at humour. ("I petition the Prime Minister to sex a badger.") Petition schemes make governments look like they're listening and the electorates think they're being listened to, but it's faux-democratic. Proposals hammered out on a keyboard are generally hare-brained and ill thought out, and politicians regard them with the contempt they deserve.

In reality, the traditional stack of A4 with a few hundred signatures presented in person will always look more impressive than a few thousand "yeahs" on a website. Commons Leader Sir George Young said yesterday that the plan will give the public a megaphone. Megaphones are profoundly irritating.