Online petitions :  are they actually useful ?

Today I want to deal with a question that everybody has asked at least once. Indeed, online petitions are multiplying and we receive them everyday in our mail boxes, or see them on our Facebook page.

I will try here to answer this question.

Petition, a way for direct democracy

Petitions constitute one of the major tools of direct democracy (when the people vote laws directly, and not through representatives) since it allows citizens to submit law projects to the Parliament. It is a form of participative democracy, defined as the tool that allows to better integrate the citizens into political life and to make them participate in the decision process.

You need for instance 1 million signatures to refer to the European Commission and ask it to support a law. In Switzerland, 50 0000 signatures may cancel a law. In France, since 2008, citizens can refer to the Economic, Social and Environmental Council as soon as a petition reaches 500 000 signatures, but the initiative of law remains the Government’s prerogative.

Seen from this angle, the flourishing of petition seems to be the sign of a positive evolution of our democracy, that would give more space to citizens’ voices.

With shadows aspects

First of all, the validity of all those petitions may be in question since it is difficult to verify the actual number of real signatures, even if the websites hosting the petitions pretend they are reliable.

The fact that the author of the petition may stay hidden or use a fake name may lead to a manipulation of the public opinion.

We also need to lay stress on the fact that the content of the petition, that is the information the author uses to make you sign are not verified by the hosting websites.

In other words, anyone can ask you to sign for anything.

Those websites’ main source of income are the sponsored petitions sold to important NGOs, and that are sent to identify users thanks to the database.

Finally, the question of data protection is a hard topic; even though those websites claim not to use your data, we should assume that they do it.

Rare but dazzling successes

An impressive numbers of petition are launched every year, and only a small part of them are successful. In France, we may quote the petition to free Jacqueline Sauvage, that led to the pardon of the hold woman, or the petition against the Labour law that gathered 1,2 million signatures and led to a rewriting of the text and the opening of a national debate around the law.

Some other petitions, around the world, meet success, without such an impressive number of signatures.

The factors for success

First of all, for a petition to be successful, the goal, the person to whom it is adressed and the way to achieve the goal must be clearly defined. Of course, if the goal is impossible to achieve, it is no worth signing it, as well as if the person targeted are not well defined.

Regarding the number of signatures, it depends on the ambitions of the petition. For a « small concern », a small number of signatures may be enough. For the bigger concerns, the law determines the number of signatures needed, which is, most of the time, very high.

Having public character’s signatures may help the petition, influencing not only the political power but also the citizen, leading them to sign the petition.

To conclude, without definitively cutting short the problem, we want to underline that petitions are a way to create social link among the user (some allows you to see in real time who and where are the people who sign the petition), and to inform the reader about a serious topic, while possibly leading to a media coverage and a political debate. We can take the example of the petition against excision in France, that led to the debate on this taboo topic.

All resources are in french, sorry guys :/ Check the article in French if you want to read them !



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