Taking Protest Online: Petition Sites and How They Redefine Solidarity

by Alison K Lanier

It’s almost a requirement that for businesses and organizations to be successful they need to be online. Easy-access apps have transformed bookstores and grocery stores into URLs. Exclusively-online services not only live on the Internet, but utilize it to give the sites their lifeblood.

Two members of this online community, the Avaaz and Change organizations, have succeeded in digitizing not just a marketplace but a culture of protest. These activism sites organize huge digital petitions that users can sign with the click of a button, from a computer at home or a smartphone in the train station. It’s a direct, elegant and massively effective way to bring protest out of the sphere of sidewalk petition-peddlers and bring it to a scale in which the signatures climb into the thousands and achieve real results with the simplicity of sending an email.

How Petition Sites Work

Colossal petition-protest sites carry slogans like “Democracy in Action,” with passionate social justice messages. The sites build the momentum to act on those messages by drawing on an extensive list of subscribers, according to the Change website. These subscribers give the sites their real effectiveness, which behind the Technicolor curtain is essentially the blunt strength of their sheer numbers. There are hundreds of thousands of potential signers who will receive an email outlining the petition’s goals and the context of the issue it’s addressing.

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The whole process is quick and efficient. A subscriber can tap open an email on their smartphone and their digital signature can be attached to a petition seconds later. The streamlined procedure of an email to a signature has been used to address protests from condemning an anti-gay law in Uganda to removing unexpected banking fees from Bank of America, according to the Change website

Change is one of the most well-known of these sites. It received special recognition for its petitions in support of Trayvon Martin and more recently for successfully opposing charges against a rape victim who tweeted the names of her attackers, according to Forbes Magazine. Change has had its share of criticism in the press as well, mainly because it is technically a for-profit company that is paid for by hosted sponsored petitions from groups like Amnesty International, according to the Information Diet website. Change’s mission statement states that the site “empowers anyone, anywhere to start, join, and win campaigns to change the world.” The successful anti-banking fees petition to Bank of America, for example, was started by a recent college grad and part-time nanny living, as she said, paycheck to paycheck, according to Molly Katchpole’s petition on the Charge website.

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These sites have a proud, if relatively brief, history of truly effective protest. Change and Avaaz went online in 2007. Any member can create a petition at any time, propelling thousands of other subscribers to sign on to start a petition. A 22,000-signature petition was featured on the Change website and was started to petition for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to support the Saudi women’s movement. Browsing petitions from economic justice topics and sustainable food to human trafficking and education, subscribers can affect issues nationally or internationally, standing, if distantly, with tens of thousands of other like-minded supporters.

Making the Move Online

Because these sites operate exclusively online, it gives them a character unique to the Internet age. Like an episode of a science fiction show where a society doesn’t need to leave the house, these massive, driven groups are separated by relative anonymity and global distance. These aren’t social sites since the members are a community in the sense that they share one purpose at a time, one petition at a time. For the most part they don’t know each others’ names.

Nevertheless subscribers to petition sites are an effective whole. Essentially the incredible size of the sites’ membership is what really gives the petitions momentum. Clicking your signature onto a petition is an act of solidarity carried out privately by each one of the tens to hundreds of thousands who receive the incendiary email and respond with their support.

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This solitude is, ironically, the foundation of a movement that hawks solidarity and the power of the group as a whole. Unlike protesters of the past, the Internet enables a given Avaaz member to become “part of the movement” in a truly lackadaisical and distanced way. The members, though effective in the long-run, are robbed of involvement in an actual sense. The opportunity to attach a comment or reason for signing is tellingly optional. The member’s contribution—again, a meaningful contribution in the end—is boiled down to a signature displayed on a rolling counter as, for instance, “John B., USA, had signed this petition,” and a second-by-second updated total signature count.

Standing United While Divided

The ease and opportunity to get involved in such a tangible, visibly effective movement makes these sites unprecedented in their own right. In previous decades and in current movements like the Occupy demonstrations, the hoped-for change would be the product of a highly visible—and audible—group of concerned people, whose actual presence, their faces on television screens, brought about awareness, concern and eventually a difference.

Instead of a human presence, Avaaz, Change and other similarly-formatted sites bring about a difference through highly visible numbers alone. The only groups that must become aware or concerned in this process are the protesters themselves, in reality separating both the protesters from the public and the anonymous protesters from each other.

These sites achieve an incredible amount of good. And the intention behind the thousands of signatures themselves does not mean any less because of the distanced, digital format of the petition. Rather, these signers are entering into a fresh, proven-effective form of protest, facilitated and simplified by the Internet. These enormous and powerful, but lonely protests are redefining solidarity for an online generation, where a sense of unity can be synonymous with the solitary tap of a smartphone screen.

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