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Randy Paynter 31 min read

Slacktivism: Why Snopes got it Wrong About Internet Petitions

"It is always with the best intentions that the worst work is done," observed Oscar Wilde. And so it goes with an unfortunate entry on Snopes.com (a site usually quite good about debunking urban legends), that characterizes "internet petitions" as "slacktivism", a pejorative suggesting that activism is worthless if it doesn't require considerable effort.

I usually ignore such commentary since naysayers are a dime a dozen, but that particular post gets a lot of attention: it's one of the top search results for "petitions," is a favorite among cynics, and no doubt has turned off many who might otherwise have taken action. At a time when civic engagement is more important than ever, it's a tragedy that this ill-conceived post has disempowered so many people.

Before I explain why Snopes is wrong about internet petitions, a little history: If you were online back in the late '90s, you likely recall receiving "email petitions" that asked people to add their name to the bottom of an email, and forward it for their friends to sign. They spread like wildfire but then disappeared into cyberspace with little to no resulting benefit. In Snopes' original "internet petitions" post they correctly labeled those petitions a waste of time.

In fact, I too was so appalled by that waste that I started thePetitionSite.com, back in 2000, as a way to channel that energy for good. By creating a central repository for signatures, adding fraud prevention, and making sure those signatures get delivered to Congress and other targets, we created a tool that has forced politicians, businesses and organizations large and small to face the power of their constituents.

But aren't online petitions still just "slacktivism"?
Let's look at the two assumptions people make when using the term:

Assumption #1: Online activism assuages guilt and makes people feel they don't need to do more.

True? Nope. Online activism is motivating more people than ever to make a difference.


1. Lower hurdles lead to more widespread involvement:

The reason we have such apathy in society today is because most people believe it's too difficult to have an impact and/or they don't believe they personally can make a difference. Because online activism makes it easy to get involved, millions more people than ever before are speaking up and taking action. And that's a good thing. Ask any hardcore activist you know - their first action probably wasn't storming the White House. Usually, activists start with simple steps, get some positive feedback, and then take it to a higher level. If we want a more engaged democracy we need to make it easy for as many people as possible to feel the joy of those first simple steps. Internet petitions are effectively a "gateway drug" to more civic engagement.

2. It's basic psychology:

Those first simple steps can be a powerful motivator. A recent independent study showed individuals who first signed an online petition associated with a nonprofit were 7 times more likely to subsequently donate to that organization than those who had not signed. Why? If we invest our time and energy to take action we're telling our brain it's important to us. That's particularly true when we announce publicly (such as by signing an online petition) that we believe in something. We humans have a strong internal need to be consistent with our self-image, so simple actions that demonstrate that we care about, say the environment, lead to future actions to support the environment (through donations, voting, purchases, discussions with friends, etc.).

3. It's the payoff that motivates:

Snopes author Barbara Mikkelson's "Amish" argument implies that online petitions are less meaningful because they make it too easy for citizens to communicate their views to elected leaders, unlike the old days of paper petitions and letters more laboriously written by hand. I believe people hold onto that outdated belief with good intentions, but I don't believe it's a philosophy that's going to create the kind of change we wish to see in the world.

It's not the effort of the act that further motives people, it's the emotional payoff that drives future engagement. If you make activism effective and enjoyable, people will do more of it. If you make it painful, they'll do less.

4. Different strokes for different folks:

Not everyone is going to become a super activist. If simple steps are all you're up for, then it's great to have you on board. Far better that than apathy. As Mother Teresa famously said, "If you can't feed a hundred people, then feed just one."

Assumption #2: Simple steps like online petitions don't effect real change in the world.

True? Nope. Online petitions and other actions produce huge impact.

First, let's clear up a couple of common misconceptions about how "real change" happens:

1. Headlines aren't the story:

Legislation, big fundraisers, new school openings and elections may grab all the headlines, but these are all just the results of millions of small decisions and actions along the way. President Obama didn't win 53% of the popular vote out of the blue. There were literally billions of little decisions and events that contributed to that final fact. Society celebrates the big milestones, but they're just markers along a long journey made by enough people who cared to make an issue a priority to influence decisions by those with authority. Online petitions and other actions are often the catalysts that can influence, engage and drive real change - which then, to most of the world, suddenly appears out of nowhere to grab the headlines.

2. The President didn't do it alone:

It's easy to credit the President, the CEO, or other persons in power for big change events. The truth is, their priorities are set by outside influences: what they hear from their constituents, what their colleagues present to them, and from their life experiences and other influences. The person in power may pull the trigger, but the reason they pulled that trigger - or had a trigger to pull in the first place - was a product of what came before. Online petitions are powerful indicators of public opinion, often trigger subsequent media attention, provide ammunition to nonprofit organizations and lobbyists, and can fast track an issue while others languish.

3. It doesn't take a handwritten letter:

We've all heard the story, "if you want to influence a person in power, write them a personal letter or call them on the phone." While those are indeed great tactics, try being the target of thousands of unhappy people signing a petition and writing comments visible to the public. Let's just say it's a very motivating experience, as countless lawyers, business owners, and elected officials have complained to us. Heck, it appears even North Korea couldn't take the pressure and trie
d to shut down
thePetitionSite when we targeted them last year to release two US journalists imprisoned there.

Bottom line, the assumptions behind "slacktivism" are just plain wrong. Probably well intentioned, but totally flawed, ill conceived, and not helpful.

So, Online Petitions Are The Key to Making a Difference, Right?

Online petitions, like votes, presidents, big donations, lobbyists or anything else for that matter, can never claim "full credit" for change. Sometimes petitions are major factors in a big decision, sometimes they're the triggers that alert international media to hot stories, sometimes they simply raise general awareness of an issue, act as catalysts for fundraising, or compel other power brokers to get involved.

That's the way change happens: always the result of many steps and many influences, it always begins with individuals taking simple steps... which is why on practically every online action site you'll find Margaret Mead's poignant quote, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Examples of the Power of Online Activism

These days it's hard to imagine significant change happening that's not greatly influenced by so-called armchair "slacktivists." Web 2.0 activism has transformed the power structure, putting power in the hands of the people and forcing authorities to be accountable like never before. The frustrations with G.W. Bush and the subsequent enthusiasm, fundraising, and election of Obama and a Democrat-controlled Congress are well-documented examples fueled by online petitions and other online activism.

While most successful online actions never attain such recognition, here are a few lesser known examples where online petitions played a key role:

Laura Ling and Euna Lee Freed
In March of 2009, independent journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were imprisoned in North Korea, charged with grave crimes against the state, and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor. Their friends and family rallied to bring attention to their plight, and created petitions on Care2 to raise awareness and call on North Korea to free the women. Close to 90,000 people signed these petitions, helping to keep the story in the national spotlight for months. In August, former President Bill Clinton traveled to North Korea and negotiated Laura and Euna's release. Read more here as well as Laura Ling's thank you letter to Care2 petition signers.

US Military Changes Course
When Sergeant Gwen Beberg attempted to take home a dog she had saved off the streets of Baghdad as a puppy, the US military confiscated the dog to destroy it. A friend helped her start a Care2 petition that quickly gained 70,000 signatures and made headlines around the world. The US Military responded to the outcry, changed course, and returned "Ratchet", the dog, to Beberg. They now live at home in Minneapolis.

David and Sean Goldman Reunited
David Goldman's son Sean was abducted by his biological mother and taken to Brazil against international law five years ago, and David has been fighting to bring him home ever since. His friends started a petition on Care2 to help his cause, and 60,000 people from around the world signed. The magnitude of the petition helped spawn rallies and media attention, and eventually David received support from the U.S. Congress and the Obama Administration. On Christmas Eve, 2009, David and Sean were finally reunited.

Roxana Saberi Freed
Roxana Saberi, an American journalist with dual Iranian-American citizenship, was arrested in Iran in late January 2009 and imprisoned without charges for over a month. In April, based on a closed, one-day trial, Ms. Saberi was sentenced to eight years in prison for charges of spying for the U.S., a charge the White House vigorously denied as "baseless." Almost 28,000 activists signed the Care2 petition urging the Iranian government to free Roxana Saberi. These signatures and the resulting global spotlight put pressure on both the Iranian and US governments. On May 11th, American journalist Roxana Saberi walked out of prison in Iran, and is now free.

Matthew Shepard Act Passed
President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law as part of the Defense Authorization Act. The US Congress recognized the importance of this legislation after 25,000 Care2 members signed petitions and called their members of Congress to urge them to support this important piece of legislation.

HIV Travel Ban Lifted
For 22 years people with HIV/AIDS were banned from entering the U.S. Thousands of Care2 members, along with our nonprofit partners, petitioned the Obama administration to end this fear-based policy... and it worked the repeal of this ban is now in effect.

EPA Regulates Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Thousands of Care2 members have submitted signatures to the Environmental Protection Agency in the last few years urging the U.S. government to regulate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This past September, the EPA announced a proposal to get us there, requiring large power plants and industrial facilities to obtain operating permits to cover their emissions, with an annual threshold of 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Read more about this promising first step.

Climate Bill Passes House
In joint campaigns with environmental groups and unions, Care2 members have sent hundreds of thousands of messages to their legislators calling for them to pass strong climate change legislation and our voices are finally being heard. Last June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a comprehensive climate change bill called the American Clean Energy Security Act.

Obama Admin Protects Roadless Forests
In just two weeks, more than 8,000 Care2 members sent letters to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, urging him to take action to stop a Bush-era plan to open up old-growth forests in Oregon to clearcutting. The Obama administration listened and agreed!

Candidly, I hesitate to even raise such headline grabbing stories, because it plays into the misconception that the headline is the success point. It's not. In fact, success is often what's not in the headlines - like the successful battles (including hundreds of thousands of Public Comments sent by Care2 members e.g. see here) to keep drilling out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). And, sometimes even if a b
attle is lost despite vast online petitioning, the outcome is significantly influenced (such as the effort to keep snowmobiles out of Yellowstone. Although it failed to meet its ultimate objective, the huge public opposition resulted in stricter regulations and immeasurably greater awareness of the hazards of snowmobiles in national parks).

There are many more examples, and I've listed some below, but no matter what kind of change you wish to see in the world - whether it's related to climate change, the economy, health care, the power of money in our political system, or anything else - the fundamental solution is always more citizen engagement (unless you happen to own one of those Big Banks). Even the most greedy corporations and self-interested elected officials will do what the people want if enough of us get engaged by raising our collective voices and voting with our ballots and dollars. Online activism is a key ingredient for a more engaged, better educated, and effective democracy.

I'll leave the final word to an inspiration of mine, BodyShop Founder, Anita Roddick. As she so keenly observed, "If you think you're too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito."

More Examples

There are thousands of great success stories around the web, but here are some more of my favorites that Care2 members, often with great support from our 500+ partner nonprofits, have played key roles in:

Petition to Stop Aerial Spraying of the Light Brown Apple Moth
A statewide protest erupted after this online petition reached the news media and eventually the desk of Governor Schwarzenegger who called a halt to the spraying until more research could be completed.

Petition to Care for Heather Bridges
Within 24 hours of posting the petition, the 168 signatures got the attention of a staff member of her U.S. Congressional Representative, which started the process of getting her the care she needed. Sometimes it doesn't take a lot of signatures!

Defeat of Richard Pombo (R-CA)
This once popular representative from Central California was defeated after massive online petition campaigns (see here, here, here and here) helped reveal his damaging anti-environment track record.

Victoria's Secret Agrees to Stop Using Paper from Endangered Forests in its Catalogs
See the petition and more information from our partner who led this campaign, Forest Ethics.

Keep Domestic Cats in Wisconsin from Being Fair Game
When Care2 member Laila found out that a hunter in Madison, Wisconsin had proposed that hunters be allowed to shoot free-roaming domestic cats, She delivered over 30,000 signatures protesting this proposal to Steven Oestreicher, the Chairman Wisconsin Conservation Congress. Laila and all those who signed the petition were victorious - the proposal was rejected!

Keeping Information about Toxic Pollution Public
The Bush Administration proposed weakening the laws requiring toxic chemical polluters to disclose the types and quantities of chemicals they release into the air, water and land. During the Public Comment Period over 100,000 people - including 30,000 Care2 members - submitted comments. As a result, the EPA rejected the plan.

Keep Sewage Out of Our Rivers
Petitions, emails and phone calls helped tip the scales when Care2 worked with the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) to stop an EPA plan to allow more sewage to enter our waterways. The House of Representatives voted to prohibit the EPA from adopting a policy that would have permitted the blending of partially and fully treated sewage into our water supply after heavy rains and snow melts.

Teacher Removed from Class
When a FL teacher had her kindergarten class vote on whether to remove a possibly autistic child from her classroom, Care2 member, Laura, started a petition to vote the teacher out. The petition drew national attention about the issue of autism and resulted in the teacher's reassignment.

Legislation Passed to Allow Wounded Soldier to Adopt Military Dog Another example of where the military was forced to respond to public outcry.

US Fish and Wildlife Service confiscates Polar Bears
Petition drew attention to the poor treatment of polar bears in a Puerto Rico Circus. (see also here)

Elephants Removed from Hawthorn Corporation and Moved to Sanctuary
Read the story here.

Maggie the Elephant Saved from Anchorage Zoo

Public outcry helped get Maggie moved from the snowy Anchorage Zoo to California.

"Ben" the Bear moved to a sanctuary in Colorado
This petition helped raise awareness about the plight of a bear in Iowa, resulting in enough funds raised to place him in a sanctuary in Colorado.

Have more examples? Please share them in the comments below. Thank you!

*Randy Paynter is the Founder and CEO of Care2.com, the company behind the Frogloop blog.

**This article was originally published on the Care2 Trailblazers Cause Channel.




Randy Paynter

As the founder of Care2 and the PetitionSite, Randy is a pioneer of online advocacy. Randy launched Care2 in 1998 to empower individuals to take collective action in support of social and environmental causes. Today, Care2 helps over 45 million members stand together, start online petitions, and share stories that inspire action.