Have you ever come across an online petition asking for your name and email address that seems like it’s for a really good cause, but it makes you wonder, “How could my name and email make a difference?”
There is a stigma about online petitions. People think that they’re just the activist tool of lazy people who don’t want to do “real” activism. There’s even a name for online button-clicking activism: slactivism.
But is it really “slacker” activism?
As it turns out, the numbers of signatures on petitions DO HELP with real world causes. Whether or not putting your name on an online petition will make a difference depends on a few factors: who created the petition, its timing, target, aim, and what you do next.
Petitions are Tactics
Online petitions are an early-stage political tactic that can help build a broader campaign and serve many purposes, such as sending a signal of public opinion to a decision-maker, telling the media that there is enough public attention to do a story, building a list of people who are interested in a particular issue, and spurring additional action and raising money.
Online petitions are the modernized versions of paper petitions of the past, when people with clipboards would gather signatures and hand them to legislators. E-petitions have an advantage, since they allow us to collect signatures quickly and spread information rapidly. As the barriers to entry get lower, more petitions, both good and bad, pop up in emails, Facebook, Twitter and social media feeds.
Although e-petitions alone are not going to achieve change, they are a very useful first step in shining light on important issues and helping them gain traction.
Online Petitions: Credible Theory of Change
Most savvy organizations that launch online petitions will have a credible “Theory of Change.” According to Gail Ablow from her article Sign Here to Save the World: Online Petitions Explained, in most cases, an experienced organization will “anchor its work with a petition, but then it is up to the campaigner to design a strategy.”
The strategy needs to have a clear target, such as a person, company or government, and a clear action it wants the target to take. For example, the Keystone XL Pipeline opposition campaign’s target was President Obama because he had the power to take action by refusing to approve the pipeline.
The climate crisis as a whole is too big for a single petition to solve, but a well-timed and thought-out petition certainly has the capability to draw public attention and engage a lot of people in a critical piece of addressing it. This will galvanize and amass people wanting change, who collaboratively can make a huge difference in grassroots, social, economic and policy change for the better.
Your Signature Means a Lot
Your digital signature on a petition matters to an advocacy organization, because once you add your name and email address, you are counted as an active part of that movement. Just remember to do your research before you sign!
To use the above example again, if your goal is to support the Standing Rock Sioux in the fight against the Keystone XL Pipeline, make sure your name is actually going towards the cause you want. People or organizations with nothing to do with a cause can create an online petition to collect email addresses based on popularity or virality, but may not actually be associated with any organizations helping with or leading that work.
Online petitions are indeed a very helpful step towards change, and a tactic with proven track records of success. Next time you see an online petition pop up about a cause you are interested in, do some research and sign, if it checks out!
Your name could be key to the difference you want to see in the world.
Reach Out to Local Representatives to Demand Change!
Petitions are a great first step in creating change on issues you are passionate about, but the next step is to reach out to your local representatives and elected officials to demand that change you want to see happen!
Don’t know how to get started? We’ve got you covered!
Template for Legislator Letter
RE: (Topic, or bill number if you are writing about a particular legislative bill)
Dear (Representative/Senator/Congressman or Congresswoman) (Last name):
My name is (your first and last name) and I am a constituent from (your location).
(Discuss why you support or oppose the topic of your letter or email. Do your research and include support for your argument).
(Include a personal story to communicate why this issue is important to you and how it affects you/your community).
(Tell your representative how you want them to vote on this issue and ask for a response. Include your name and address on both your letter and envelope.)
SIGN YOUR NAME
Print your name
City, State, Zip code
Sample Legislator Letter
RE: Green New Deal
Dear Senator Brown:
My name is Caitlin Fisher and I am a constituent from Akron, Ohio.
As someone who cares deeply about the issue of climate change, it is imperative that Congress pass legislation to achieve net zero emissions, create sustainable infrastructure to eliminate dependence on fossil fuels, and to promote renewable energy that is accessible to all. In addition, it’s important to support sustainable agriculture for better carbon sequestration in our soil, reduce pesticide use to promote natural biodiversity of pollinating insects, and promote access to healthy and nutritious food in all communities. Approving the Green New Deal will create jobs in renewable energy and help the United States take our place in the world and do our part to address climate change worldwide. Our country is the second biggest polluter in the world.
Please support the Green New Deal legislation, H. Res 109, when it comes to the senate floor.
Here is another sample email to a local representative that you can tailor to your own mission!
Federal Elected Officials
- Contact President Joe Biden online, or call the White House switchboard at 202-456-1414 or the comments line at 202-456-1111 during business hours.
- Locate your U.S. Senator’s contact information.
- Find your U.S. Representative’s website and contact information.
State Elected Officials
- Get in touch with your state governor.
- Find the names and current activities of your state legislators.
Local Elected Officials
- Locate your mayor by name, city, or population size.
- Find your county executive (the head of the executive branch of government in your county) by map search or your ZIP Code. The county executive may be an elected or an appointed position.
Get contact information for your city, county, and town officials.
We hope these tips help you connect with the causes that matter most to you and get involved in real change!