Online petitions are popular in this internet age ... but how much effect do they have? Have you ever signed an online petition – say, on Change.org – and felt like you've done something to help? Petitions, for example, that call for less packaging in supermarkets or for a ban on plastic straws? Great! But did it actually work? There are thousands and thousands of online petitions in circulation – asking for everything from action on climate change, to refugee rights, to legalising recreational drugs, to plastic pollution. Many of these petitions have tens or hundreds of thousands of signatures. Yet how many of these are likely to achieve their goal and make a change?
For an online petition to work, it needs to have political pressure. This is difficult to achieve without an extraordinary number of signatures and the petition being picked up by a political party for their agenda. The other problem is the sheer number of petitions online. The challenge for politicians is to look through the online outrage and decide which petitions should get their attention. This is further complicated by the fact that many politicians are used to the pre-internet age of letters to the editor and will often dismiss anything online.
Whether or not they achieve their goal, petitions raise awareness. The people who sign them were either already aware of the issue, in which case seeing a petition is likely to prompt them to tell others; or they are hearing in detail about the issue for the first time, in which case you've just widened the sphere of the campaign. They can also create publicity around the issue: if a news outlet picks it up, they can spread the word much more effectively than you can. This also helps create political pressure.
Petitions around plastic pollution can be effective, if enough people sign them. Woolworths and Coles have been well-targeted by petitions in the past – a notable example is the debate around single-use plastic bags, which eventually swelled enough that a ban was put into law.
While online petitions, especially around plastic pollution, can be effective, signing one does not assuage you of the need to do something more substantial. Signing a petition does not mean you don't have to recycle, or reduce your plastic use. Online petitions are good for raising awareness around an issue, but likely not more than that.
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