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How Effective Are Online Petitions in Advocating for Policy Change?

How Effective Are Online Petitions in Advocating for Policy Change?

How Effective Are Online Petitions in Advocating for Policy Change?| Afrocritik

Since the internet can increase public engagement on the issue(s) raised in a petition, it is no surprise that more electronic petitions are created daily.  

By Michael Akuchie 

I believe the first and only online petition that I have signed is the one started in 2022 that sought for the current passport issuance system in Nigeria to be overhauled and replaced by a digitised system. As someone affected by the unnecessary delays, it felt great to lend my voice to an issue that millions of Nigerian students were facing. Unless you were willing to pay a bribe, securing a passport in a short period was always difficult. The process has now been digitised and registration is now easier than before. 

According to the oldest continuously published Encyclopedia Britannica, a petition is a “written instrument directed to some individual, official, legislative body, or court in order to redress a grievance or to request the granting of a favour.” But unlike traditional paper petitions that are passed around in neighbourhoods to gain signatures from residents, online petitions have taken centre stage since they have a wider reach, thanks to the internet. 

For instance, an online petition created to raise awareness about the human rights violations in Congo can cross the shores of Africa and reach residents of other continents if shared on social media sites such as X, Facebook, and Instagram. Since the internet can increase public engagement on the issue(s) raised in a petition, it is no surprise that more electronic petitions are created daily.  

The history of online petitions can be traced to the late 1990s, with Petition Online (now known as Change.org) being the first-ever electronic petition site. Today, you can create a petition on several websites such as Change.org, Signon.org, and care2.org. The main prerequisite is to provide a background of the issue you want to draw attention to. The issue could be on a local level, such as the need to fix potholes in your community, or on a national level, like the advocacy for the government to publish the details of its budgetary allocation. It is strongly recommended that petitioners conduct extensive research on the issue they want to highlight in the petition to ensure that they do not mislead the public in any way. After that, creating a form where concerned individuals can add their signatures is next. When the form has been created, petitioners typically promote them on their social media platforms. They can also utilise other online information delivery systems such as newsletters and blog posts. 

A smartphone displaying Change.orgs home page jpg
Credit| CNN

It is worth mentioning that certain factors such as media coverage, strategic partnerships with Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), and public engagement can determine the success of an online petition. Regarding public engagement, for instance, the involvement of celebrities and influencers can also increase the number of signatures and engagements a petition will receive. With the mass following that celebrities attract, their interest in a cause can increase public engagement in the cause. For example, the court judgment that sentenced Cyntoia Brown to life imprisonment in the US for the murder of a man who bought her from a sex trafficking ring drew the attention of celebrities such as Rihanna and Kim Kardashian who called for Brown to be granted clemency. This advocacy, alongside the public attention that the case drew, eventually led to Brown being granted clemency and released after serving 15 years of the life sentence. 

Some online petitions have recorded success over the years, bringing the government’s attention and subsequent intervention into the issue raised. In the heat of COVID-19, governments across the world implemented lockdown measures to curb the spread of the virus. Following the closure of businesses, Stephanie Bonin, a Colorado-based restaurant owner, created a petition that called on the US government to introduce monthly $2,000 stimulus checks to vulnerable American families. The petition gained over 3 million signatures and led to the issuance of stimulus checks to struggling families in the US. 

Another notable victory for online petitions was the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act (PACT) which sought to make animal cruelty a punishable offence under federal law in the US. Following the creation of a petition seeking the bill’s passage, it recorded almost 800,000 signatures. This nudged the US Senate to finally approve the bill which former president Donald Trump signed into law. 

How Effective Are Online Petitions in Advocating for Policy Change? | Afrocritik
A page showing the number of signs on an online petition| The Conversation

There have also been online petition victories closer to home, and the one started by Dennis Ekwere, a Nigerian, is one of them. Aside from the death tolls, the aftermath of COVID-19 in Nigeria and the rest of Africa exposed low-income earners to harsh economic conditions. As such, many of them approached several loan companies for loans. Unfortunately, most of them offered high-interest loans with short repayment periods and were not hesitant to use character defamation as a tactic to regain their money. Some companies also went for a more subtle approach and would initiate automatic deductions from the debtor’s account the moment a credit transaction occurred. 

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Ekwere’s petition sought the government’s support in calling the loan companies to order, ensuring that they did not break any data privacy law anymore. After 8,000+ signatures, the government swung into action and a Joint Task Force Committee composed of federal bodies such as the Federal Competition and Consumers Protection Council (FCCPC) and Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) conducted a raid of several loan companies’ offices on March 11, 2022. Subsequently, the Joint Task Force Committee also wrote to Google, requesting that the mobile applications of the affected loan companies should be delisted from its PlayStore to protect Nigerians from predatory lenders. 

However, not all online petitions succeed. Even if the public and celebrities get involved, it all boils down to the government’s willingness to implement the desired policy change. On December 13, 2021, Maryam Bukar Hassan, a Nigerian activist, started a petition that wanted the then-Nigerian government, led by Muhammadu Buhari, to declare a state of emergency in the country’s northern region over rising insecurity. Despite gaining 42,000+ signatures, the government did not declare a state of emergency as the petition requested. Still, an unsuccessful petition does not signal the end of that cause as the petitioner can still raise awareness about the issue via social media and traditional media platforms. They can also leverage community engagement as a viable tool for keeping the cause alive seeing as governments are transient. By ensuring that the cause outlasts the current government, the people should continue the activism until a government, whether the next or the one after that, grants it.

Although online petitions have led to several positive changes in the world, the struggle for policy change should not end when you sign a petition and share it on your social media feed. Citizens must realise that policy change rarely occurs because a petition managed to attract hundreds of thousands of millions of signatures. Beyond online petitions, citizens can lend their voices to pressing issues by engaging their lawmakers. They can also utilise peaceful demonstrations to nudge the government towards the implementation of a request. Physical sensitisation projects, especially in areas with poor internet connectivity which prevent residents from participating in online petitions, are another meaningful step in driving policy change. Even though online petitions can have two possible outcomes (success or failure), their relevance in policy change can not be undermined. With the internet at our fingertips, we can easily discover new causes to support. 

Michael Akuchie is a tech journalist with four years of experience covering cybersecurity, AI, automotive trends, and startups. He reads human-angle stories in his spare time. He’s on X (fka Twitter) as @Michael_Akuchie & michael_akuchie on Instagram.

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