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According to the Oxford Internet Survey (Dutton et al., cited in Panagiotopoulos et al., 2011), petitions are the most frequent form of online civic participation by Internet users.Online petitioning platforms include official government platforms like the UK’s ePetitioning, or independent platforms such as Change.org.
Change.org “is the world’s largest petition platform, empowering people everywhere to create the change they want to see” (“About Change.org”, n.d., para 1). It has become a go-to for activists around the world to create petitions with global reach and have people sign them online. Their website states, “…technology has made us more connected than ever. It’s now possible for anyone to start a campaign and immediately mobilise hundreds of others locally or hundreds of thousands around the world, making governments and companies more responsive and accountable” (“About Change.org”, n.d., para 4). What once was a long and arduous task – determined by the need to actually find people who might sign your petition – has now transformed into a task easily facilitated by social media and the online press. The effectiveness of online petitioning demonstrates how civic engagement has been affected by changes in technology. Online petitioning has taken a traditional social movement tactic online, allowing for easier spreadability and an “increased likelihood to participate in protest, or politics more generally, when [youth] think that their efforts may matter” (Earl & Schussman, 2008, p.89).
In their study on youth culture and online petitioning, Earl and Schussman (2008) recognise only a thin distinction between political engagement and civic engagement, but focus on cultural orientated youth petitioning. They state that the informality and relatively unmanaged style of online petitioning may even be one reason this kind of engagement is appealing to youth, as opposed to the unappealing nature of highly managed media experiences to youth (Earl & Schussman, 2008).
Furthermore, signing a petition online does not require a great deal of time and effort as other forms of civic engagement, such as participating in political discussion online. This allows for quick and easy engagement, whilst petition writing and signing can be a forum for learning how to express oneself in a collective context. Petitioning can also foster a sense of youth empowerment as young people “work on issues they care about – as opposed to issues that adults believe they should care about – and using tools that they appropriated – as opposed to tools that were assigned to them” (Earl & Schussman, 2008).
The online transfer of the traditional petitioning process raises the issue of how online petitions can be disseminated and campaigned. This key process allows online petitioners to ‘explore their own online promotion channels… one of the most important and widely used being social networking’ (Panagiotopoulos et al, 2011). It is on platforms like Facebook where this dissemination takes place. Change.org promotes sharing petitions directly to Facebook and Twitter, where you can receive a request to sign a petition, as well as on a websites or blogs. Facebook acts as not only as a main sharing platform, but a platform for forming groups and discussion around a petition and the civic issue it pertains to. As youth connect with their friends and see their friends sign or promote a petition of a cause they care about, it is more likely to gain attention and potentially signatures from entire social circles.