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Sign of the times: Can online petitions really change the world?


Matt Tovey had never created an online petition before. 

However, after a year of working in an NHS hospital throughout the pandemic, he felt bubbling irritation that the public sector pay had never seen a pay rise with inflation – and he wanted to do something about it.

‘It angered me,’ Matt, who lives in Merthyr Tydfil, recalls. ‘I needed something to get my message across on a massive scale.’

At first he started to look around for online petitions to sign. ‘But couldn’t see anything about the point I wanted to make,’ he says. ‘So I bit the bullet and created a petition asking for the government to give all NHS workers a 15% pay rise.

‘I didn’t really know what to expect or realise how quick things could take off,’ adds Matt, age 30. ‘My initial aim was for 1,000 signatures.’ 

After publishing his petition one evening in March 2021, the nurse headed for bed, not knowing how his campaign would be received.

‘I woke up the next morning and went to check my phone,’ Matt remembers. ‘I had to rub my eyes to check the number of signatures I was seeing was correct. 40,000 people had already signed.’

Within 48 hours, 60,000 people had put their name to the petition and by day four, the number had tipped over 100,000. By July 2021, 500,000 people had signed. 

Although online petititions are a phonemenon that first took hold over two decades ago, as the digital age progresses, causes like Matt’s are increasingly being harnessed by the activist world pushing for change. 

According to Change.org, since the pandemic began in 2020, more than 110 million people worldwide have signed online petitions in support of a diverse range of causes.

While many are for the ridiculous (one schoolgirl is currently demanding her teacher sings Call Me Maybe as afternoon entertainment), those like Matt’s can bring about real change.

Just last year 95-year-old Opal Lee from Texas saw her drive to make Juneteenth – a day to commemorate the day that enslaved Black Americans in Texas finally heard they were free – a national holiday in America become a reality after years of campaigning.

The founder of Change.org, Preethi Herman, attributes such a massive jump in participation over the last two years to the world entering ‘a new era of civic engagement and digital activism’. In a statement earlier this year, she said, ‘there are a number of non-traditional players who are leading the way to create a new wave of positive, people-driven change.’

Fellow petitioning platform, 38 Degrees, was launched in 2009 in the aftermath of the MP expense scandal.

‘It was formed on the idea that politics, and decisions made by politicians are too important for people to only have a say once every five years at elections,’ explains Megan Bentall, Head of Campaigns at 38 Degrees. 

Megan Bentall from 38 Degrees says that online petitions showcase wider public opinion (Picture: Supplied)

‘The hypothesis was that people weren’t as apathetic as they are often made out to be. And if a network existed that could help people take small impactful actions that gave them a sense of agency and ownership, then they would get involved. 

‘That would then have a positive impact – we’d see better decisions and responses from politicians and that would create a virtuous circle.’

But do online petitions really work? 

‘A huge one can be an excellent way of showcasing wider public opinion,’ Bentall insists. 

Here in the UK their growing clout has certainly made a mark. In 2011, it was decided that any petition attracting more than 100,000 signatures should be considered for parliamentary debate – something that has his become a formal process, alongside the launch of a government Petitions Committee.

‘When a petition springs up overnight in response to something happening on the news, and is quickly signed by hundreds of thousands of people, it can send a clear message to those in power that people have seen what they’ve done, and they aren’t happy about it,’ adds Bentall.

Matt remembers knowing that he had to ‘do something’ with his petition. ‘The government needed to see the outcry of what people thought,’ he explains.

With the help of Change.org, he organised a trip to London to present the petition to 10 Downing Street. ‘I had to knock on the door,’ says Matt, who was dressed in a t-shirt and shorts at the time. ‘It felt surreal. Like I was living my best life.’

Matt says he started his petition as he needed the government to know how people felt (Picture: Supplied)

Three months and over 825,000 thousand signatures later, Matt received a standard response to the petition from Downing Street, acknowledging the sacrifices NHS staff have faced. 

‘It wasn’t anything we hadn’t seen before,’ Matt says. ‘But it was such an impactful day. Our message was delivered everywhere. It was all over the headlines. All because of the petition.’

Seeing the impact his campaign made drove Matt to create a second petition in January 2022, when the news about Downing Street lockdown parties were splashed across the papers. This time he was calling on the the police investigate. 

‘I wanted to hold them to account,’ he explains. ‘They were taking the mick. We were working on the front line in full PPE and they were all sitting in their gardens laughing at our expense. 

‘The NHS is under extreme pressure and they don’t give a toss. They just do whatever they want and we have to pick up the pieces.’

Days after Matt published his second petition, the Metropolitan Police announced it would be launching a full investigation into the parties held by the Government during the pandemic – something Matt feels is technically a ‘victory’. 

Matt hand delivered his first petition to 10 Downing Street (Picture: Supplied)

‘2,305 people had signed,’ he says. ‘Even though my two petitions were totally different, they are linked in a way because they both revolve around a complete disregard for NHS workers,’ he explains.

Now, Matt is already planning another online campaign to rally for safe staffing ratios within the NHS. 

‘I have seen first-hand the effect these petitions can have,’ says Matt. ‘I will definitely continue to use them.’

According to Bentall a good online petition is ‘direct and simple’.

‘You want it to be very clear,’ she explains. ‘Other elements can help too. A petition started by someone with a good story will be more impactful. 

‘Timing is also really important, both in the sense of launching a petition on an issue when it’s high up in the news and on people’s radar, but also when there is still an opportunity to change something.’

But not all petitions, even ones that are clear, timely, and meaningful, will go on to achieve their intended goals.

In 2017, nearly 2million people signed a petition demanding the then-US President Donald Trump be banned from visiting the UK – but saw it rejected by the government, despite the huge number of supporters. Meanwhile, just this month, free hospital parking for NHS workers was stopped after being introduced during the pandemic, despite over 1 illion signing a petition to call for it to be continued.

Youth worker Ebony King has her own experience of seeing an online campaign she’d put everything into, fail to set alight.

After months of listening to girls share their experiences of inappropriate, sexualised behaviour from men and boys both in and out of school, Ebony, who works in the borough of Barking and Dagenham, decided she had to figure out a way to tackle the problem. 

Ebony wanted to ensure secondary schools in her borough offered specialised support to their pupils (Picture: Abiola Renee)

‘They would say to me that with the pandemic, they had been really depressed, without anyone to talk to,’ recalls Ebony. ‘They started telling me how they weren’t happy in school.’ 

One girl told of a boy who slapped her bum, while another revealed how inappropriate statements about her body were made in front of all her peers.

The girls said that street harassment, sexualised behaviour in school, and peer to peer abuse had become normal, the status quo.

‘I felt disappointed that no measures had been put in place to reduce these types of things,’ says Ebony. From her experience in working with youth, she knew that children – both boys and girls – often just need someone to talk to about everything going on.

In April 2021, Ebony, a trained mentor, sent out 13 emails to secondary schools in the borough, volunteering herself and other peers for free mentoring within the four walls of the school building. ‘Only two out of 12 schools got back to me,’ she says, adding that she felt confounded by such little response over something so important.

However, this lack of engagement only spurred Ebony, who had previously set up empowerment workshops for girls, to start a campaign to get trained mentors, with lived experiences, into every second school in the borough.

Creating a campaign video in July 2021, it showcased the voices of boys and girls who felt they needed more help in dealing with everything they were facing at school and home.

At the same time, Ebony also started an online petition, on the government petition website, requesting that secondary school students have access on-site to external, trauma-informed organisations with lived experiences who could support with one-to-one mentoring, and raise awareness of how to deal with various situations.

‘I was trying to find more ways to get attention on the campaign and gain awareness of the issues children were facing,’ Ebony explains. ‘I started a petition to see how many people I could get on board. But I think the last time we checked, in January 2021, there were less than 100 signatures. The petition has now expired.’ 

Even though Ebony told people about her campaign, with links in the bio of all her socials, and mentioned it in media interviews, it simply wasn’t getting signatures.

She remembers checking in on the petition’s progress and feeling shocked at the low numbers. ‘We were campaigning for something that affects everyone,’ she says.’ Yes, it is for youth safety, but that’s something which affects the whole community. If a young person gets stabbed or raped, it impacts their mum, dad, siblings, friends, and neighbourhood.’

After the initial shock wore off, Ebony admits she felt devastated that the petition didn’t take off. ‘But I’m not one that can be beaten down,’ she adds. ‘I will get back up and fight for what’s right.’

At a time when hundreds of petitions are launched on a daily basis, it might feel only natural that even the most important issues get missed. However, according to James Bore, a Chartered Security Professional, the world of online activism is far from a level playing field.

In his line of work, he spends a lot of time looking into technology risk, including manipulation-based campaigns, and says that not all petitions are created equally.

‘While they were originally run by non-profit companies, many changed some time ago,’ he explains. ‘Campaigners can now pay to have their petitions promoted to the full audience.’

Bore goes on to suggest that some of the big-hitters within the online petition landscape have turned into ‘viral marketing sites, making their money through a mix of subscribers and charging to promote whatever petitions people are willing to pay for.’

However, proponents of online petitions insist that signatures alone are very rarely enough to make a difference – they need to be accompanied with action. 

‘Petitions are often one element of a campaign,’ says Bentall. ‘Whether or not it brings about real change relies on so many other factors. It is often the catalyst for a wider campaign that can then go on to have a real impact.’

Konrad believes that even if a petition doesn’t get huge numbers it can still have an impact (Picture: Supplied)

As a young child growing up in Oregon, Konrad Juengling often hid in the shadows in a bid to avoid drawing attention to himself. But as he entered adulthood, he came out of the closet as a gay man and decided to no longer be quiet about the issues that mattered most to him.

‘I especially wanted to make a difference with LGBT rights,’ the now 35-year-old says. 

When Konrad went to university, he started writing for the school newspaper, focusing on LGBTQ+ topics. 

‘I got into outright activism in 2015 when I protested Indiana’s Religious Freedom bill by purchasing the domain names of lawmakers that had voted for the bill and redirecting them to the Human Right Campaign’s website,’ he explains. ‘It felt good to be doing something about injustices taking place.’

Alongside his passion for LGBTQ+ rights, Konrad developed an interest in animal welfare, an issue that drove him to start trying online petitions. ‘I set up my first one in December 2013 to demand Idaho pass a law to join the rest of the West Coast in not allowing the sale, importing, processing, or possessing shark fins,’ he says.

‘I was really passionate about it because shark finning is incredibly cruel. Often the sharks are caught, their fins cut off, and then they are tossed overboard. Without their fins, they don’t have the ability to swim, leading them to suffer and die quickly.’

Even though Konrad highlighted the online petition to members of government and the public, and has a large social media presence and friendship base to also share his petitions with, there was very little response – only 654 people supported the petition. ‘I ended up closing it after a year,’ he says. ‘It was really disappointing. But it didn’t stop my activism.’ 

Konrad has launched several petitions, focusing on LGBTQ+ rights and animal welfare issues (Picture: Supplied)

Since then he has created seven more online petitions, including asking the Commonwealth country of Grenada to help protect endangered animals on the island. However, even though the petition has been up for a year, it has still only received 630 signatures.

While Konrad has yet to achieve any sort of concrete change from any of his petitions, he believes that simply using them as a platform to raise awareness is a key factor to him.

‘I’m always disappointed when a petition isn’t successful, but I still want to raise the issue and get a dialogue started,’ he explains. 

‘Bringing attention to something is really important and a petition doesn’t have to be successful to do that. Societal attitudes change over time, and the more we can influence the dialogue, the more likely it is that positive change is achievable.’

Currently, Konrad plans to loop back around to his Grenada petition before creating a new one, but admits to being ‘not sure’ what his next focus will be. 

‘There are so many issues surrounding animal rights and welfare – it’s hard to know where to start,’ he says. ‘But I’ll cross my fingers and hope that my next one is the charm.’

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing Claie.Wilson@metro.co.uk 

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