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On the declining relevance of digital petitions
Part 3 in "The MoveOn Effect at 10" series
I cheat a little in this post. It’s about digital petitions, and how/why the tactical repertoires of the aughts have lost much of their oomph today. I covered that terrain in The MoveOn Effect, but went into much greater detail in Analytic Activism, which had an entire chapter on distributed petitions platforms. Basically a month after that book was published, the core insights from that chapter had been rendered irrelevant by public events.
So the cheat here is, even though this is a series on The MoveOn Effect, 10 years later, I’m going to draw a lot in this essay on examples from the sequel.
I trust that I am the only person who will be the least bit bothered by this.
I have always had a soft spot for petitioning as a tactic. Not enough people appreciate the potential and versatility of a good petition.
My first successful campaign experience revolved around a petition. It was winter 1996, and my high school activist group had just joined the campaign to protect a stretch of old-growth forest called the Belt Woods. The campaign leadership told us that the most effective tool would be handwritten letters. Handwritten letters show real commitment, and that leaves a stronger impression on legislators, they said. That may be true, I thought, but have you ever tried to get a bunch of high school students to hand-write letters?!?
So instead, we used a petition. And it was great. It was the perfect ask for new volunteers. (“hey, can you get 10-20-60 people to sign this petition?” <Sure, piece of cake. Just walk around the lunch tables.>) We were in the midst of launching a county-wide group, with members at a half-dozen high schools. The petition was an ideal vehicle for organization-building too. I would visit other high schools’ environmental clubs and tell them about the Belt Woods campaign. The petitions offered a meaningful, achievable next step with built-in follow-up.
We put up numbers with that petition — over 1,000 signatures from 6 schools. And then we photocopied the pages (recycled paper, natch!) and drove to the state capitol, where we handed them to every legislator from the county. It left an impression. We won that campaign before the end of the legislative session. It wasn’t because of the petition alone — my high school buddies and I arrived at the tail end of a multi-year grassroots effort — but it absolutely helped. And it left us with a residual organization, one that went on to win bigger fights and launch dozens of us into political activism.
MoveOn.org also began as a petition. The founders (software developers Wes Boyd and Joan Blades), were frustrated by the Clinton impeachment hearings. They launched an online petition to “censure Clinton and move on.” 500,000 signed that petition. The Republican congress didn’t care. But it was an online petition, and the people who signed had left behind their email addresses. So Blades and Boyd decided to treat them like members, follow up, and propose a next step. From those humble beginnings, the largest progressive organization of the aughts was born.
It’s a good tactic, is what I’m saying.
When I was working on The MoveOn Effect, the big debate was whether “clicktivism” like online petition-signing was somehow ruining activism. I thought that was ridiculous. Yes, of course, there are lots of dumb petitions online. But I’m old enough to remember there being lots of dumb petitions offline too. Digital petitions lower the threshold for petition creation, making it easier to see the bad ones. I always bristled when people would dismiss the tactic out of hand. Strategic campaigning is a mix of art and science. Not everyone has the knack for it, certainly not at first. Most people just draw stick figures. That doesn’t mean pens are bad.
Another big debate, at least among academics, was whether the underlying logic of collective action had been fundamentally rewritten by the Internet. (Maybe we don’t need organizations anymore. Movements can just rise up around a hashtag!) I thought that was wrong too. Long-term, large-scale movements for political change still require mediating organizations. It’s just that the political economy of those organizations radically changes when you redefine membership, dramatically alter existing revenue streams, and introduce completely new communications media. Social movements still need organizations, but they are bound to be different organizations. That was the central argument of the book, and I think it has held up just fine.
In Analytic Activism, I tried to make an even more emphatic point about digital petitions. I started working on that book in 2013. MoveOn had decided that member-led petitions were the future of the organization. Change.org was growing by leaps and bounds, giving everyday citizens an easy onramp to civic action. The White House had its own petition site, We The People (petitions.whitehouse.gov), and they promised that public petitions that reached a given signature threshold would receive a response from the administration. These were the waning days of Web 2.0. Online civic participation was all the rage back then. So I set out to compare and assess these three online petition platforms, in order to show how their underlying organizational logics impacted the types of petitions that they promoted (MoveOn was an advocacy group, Change.org was a for-profit B-corp, and the White House was, well, the government).
It was a good chapter! The writing was snappy. The data was original and, I still believe, pretty damn revealing. There’s really no point in analyzing the efficacy of digital petitioning if you aren’t going to include the broader organizational/campaign context. The whole “clicktivism” debate was a red herring.
I turned in the final edits to Analytic Activism in March 2016. Trump hadn’t even clinched the nomination yet. The book was published in December 2016. Contentious politics in America was clearly about to veer off in new directions. Within the next year, MoveOn would scale back its distributed petition platform, Change.org would adopt an entirely different business model, and the White House petition site would be taken offline entirely.
Something changed during the Trump years. Political movements swelled. They took actions online and offline. (And by 2017 the boundaries separating online and offline had become so porous as to be effectively irrelevant. If you’re tweeting and livestreaming from the Women’s March, does the distinction between online and offline activism mean anything anymore?) But, petitions took a backseat to other tactics. They feel like an artifact of simpler, more trusting times.
Even post-Trump, as President Biden has attempted to make good on the return to normalcy he promised, petitions haven’t really made a comeback. Something has changed, some piece of the old status quo has gone missing.
(Two things, actually.)
You know the old parable about the fish, right?
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” -David Foster Wallace
The water, for civic/reformist political activism in the United States, has been an elite norm of responsive governance. Political elites are supposed to behave as though they represent the will of the people, and are receptive to their entreaties. When you petition the government, or write letters to the editor, or attend a public hearing, elected officials are supposed to act like they are listening and open to what you have to say.
Note that this just a norm. There is abundant evidence that it is not an empirical reality. But it at least means that, if a thousand high school students express interest in protecting a local forest, or a half-million Americans-with-modems call for an end to the impeachment hearings, legislators are expected to put on a show of taking their input seriously. And that provides a leverage point, a place to start from. It’s a cracked window, not an open door.
That norm has been violated in the past, by Joe McCarthy and by Richard Nixon. The government has, in the past, put people on enemies lists for criticizing the administration. But treat the existence of those enemies lists as scandals, as deviations from the appropriate democratic order. That’s how norms work — when you break them, you face social sanctions.
Incidentally, the first time I encountered the racist catchphrase “immigration is white genocide” was in April 2014, while collecting data on the White House petition site. Every month, some cranky racist asshole (possibly Richard Hanania, come to think of it?) would launch multiple petitions demanding the Obama administration take a stand against “white genocide.” The petitions never got any traction. They sat there, gathering dust, until they cycled out of the system.
These were bad petitions in every sense of the word — morally repugnant, and strategically nonsensical. But the petitions were also swimming in the water of responsive governance. Their racist author and his racist buddies feared no retribution. Governments are supposed to listen to their citizens. Even the bad and dim-witted ones! (Again, like Richard Hanania!) Obama’s government was committed to at least the performance of responsiveness, transparency, and openness.
That norm withered during the Trump era. The water evaporated. I started to notice this in 2017, when a few journalists reached out to me for comment on the administration’s decision to take down the White House petition site. “Fine by me,” I said. Why would anyone use that site to register dissent or make demands on the government? At best, you would be ignored. At worst, your name would be added to some slipshod enemies list. It was all downside risk, with no upside potential.
Petitioning, as a tactic, isn’t meant for authoritarian governments. You wouldn’t expect to see a lot of online petitioning in Russia, for instance. <“Hey, look here, would you like to affix your signature to this list of people who are criticizing the regime? Make sure to leave digital trace data so they can get in touch with you later!”>
The Trump era is over, but the specter of authoritarianism remains. Joe Biden doesn’t create enemies lists; Jim Jordan and Ron Desantis do.
Under those conditions, is it any wonder that petitions seem so quaint today?
Another thing that has changed in recent years is the expansion of corporate campaigning. The logic here is pretty straightforward:
(1) The government has become less responsive to public pressure. City-dwellers are particularly underrepresented, thanks to a mix of gerrymandering and Senate malapportionment.
(2) Corporations have become more responsive to consumer pressure. They spend a lot of money on branding, and track negative attention and threats to their brand. They particularly care about people who live in big cities, since urban centers are so full of potential customers.
(3) Social movement campaigners play the hand they are dealt. Nobody particularly wants Disney and Google to be more responsive to public pressure than the federal and state government. That isn’t a great state of affairs. But if legislators have constructed districts to make sure they never lose an election, while corporations would really like more of your money and attention please, then we’re going to end up with a lot more corporate campaigning.
So you might expect a ton of social petitions aimed at corporations. Indeed, in Change.org’s heyday, that was what the company was known for. But corporation petitions seem to have declined during the Trump era as well. Corporate campaigners mostly focus on other parts of the tactical repertoire.
This, I suspect, is because of how viral media has changed.
I’m just hypothesizing here — I don’t have hard data to test the theory, and gathering that data would be a big lift — but I suspect that it’s no coincidence that Change.org and MoveOn were heavily petition-focused during the years when Facebook and Twitter were emerging as dominant platforms. Social petitions were optimized for going viral on these platforms. But Facebook is fickle. The company shifted to algorithmically promoting streaming videos through Facebook Live. Campaigners adjusted their tactics accordingly.
Today it’s much more likely to see a video go viral. That isn’t because of rising authoritarianism or abandonment of the norm of responsive governance. It’s because the current constellation of digital platforms are herd-like in their behavior, and they have all swarmed toward TikTok. The strategic choices activists make about their tactical repertoires are downstream of the business decisions that the platforms make about their algorithmic amplification.
It’s an unfortunate development, because online petitions leave more valuable trace data than online videos. This was a point I made back in 2016, in chapter 1 of Analytic Activism: when 100 million people watched the Kony2012 video, Google/YouTube was left with the list of everyone who had viewed it. Invisible Children (the organization that created the video) only had the contact information of people who took the additional step of signing up for an action kit on their website. The organization shut down a year-and-a-half later, with Kony still at large, for lack of funding.
In retrospect, the Kony example seems like a bad omen. Our organizing is increasingly optimized for platforms we don’t control, leaving sedimentary traces that are jealously guarded by the platforms themselves. That’s a difficult formula for organization-building. Building grassroots power has always been hard, and it seems to be getting harder.
So there you have it. Digital petitions are a mostly-outdated tactic now. Both our politics and our media environment have moved in directions that render them less useful.
It isn’t all bad news, though. Where petitioning used to be the central tactic in a digital campaigner’s toolbox, the Trump years saw a rebirth of collective, place-based mobilization. They were years of record-setting marches and participatory local-level civic engagement (h/t Dana Fisher, whose work you should check out if you’ve read this far). A whole lot of people did a whole lot of work to help Democrats win the 2018 and 2020 elections, and to prevent the expected “red wave” in 2022.
Plus we’ve seen a renaissance in union organizing these past few years. If you had told me in 2012 or 2016, that digital petitioning would quiet down but Amazon and Starbucks workers would run successful union drives, that would’ve sounded like a dream scenario.
But still, I can’t help but fret over the decreasing relevance of petitions. I think it ties in with the pervasive sense that government officials no longer behave as though listening to and representing citizens is a core part of the job. And it’s a reminder that most of our digital behavior is downstream of a small handful of quasi-monopolistic companies.
If American Democracy is going to make it through the next decade, we are going to need better elites. I suspect, if that happens, we will happen to see digital petitions make a comeback. They’re something of an indirect indicator of democratic health.
In the meantime, campaigners will do the best with the tools they have available. They’ll develop tactical repertoires that fit the changing media environment and respond to the political opportunity structure.
In 2012 and 2016, that led to a lot of online petitioning. But times have changed, and the tactics have too.