*** DO NOT SIGN THIS PETITION! (Well, you can if you want to — it’s not for me to tell you what to do.) ***

I do not approve of online petitions. I’m not sure that I wholly approve of offline ones either. I’ll clarify — if they’re well worded, well reasoned, well researched, and, equally importantly, they offer a viable, sustainable, effective alternative, then I have no objection. But when it’s a case of people jumping on their soap-box (or worse, on someone else’s, just for the sake of it) and spouting a lot of inflammatory drivel that they actually know next to nothing about, then I despair of my fellow man.

For example: cars are nasty, smelly, polluty things and contribute to the general obesity and unhealthiness of the population. So let’s ban them from our city centres. Good plan. But if there’s no provision to improve public transport, how can this help anyone? Several things will happen. Firstly, people who used to drive into the town will suddenly find that they need to catch three buses, wait between twenty and forty minutes between changes, go all round the houses… and spend a minimum of an hour and a half trying to do what once took them ten minutes in their car. Customers and workers will inevitably start looking for alternative places to spend or earn their money, places they can get to easily and quickly in their cars. The result of this will be that established businesses will suffer. Small family-run concerns will close and larger companies will simply relocate to industrial estates out of the town centre, where there’s adequate parking and fewer hassles. Of course, this will mean that the people who live in the centre of town and always used to walk to their favourite shop or place of employment will now have to start driving to get to them… Whereas once there was a fairly even division between those who chose to pollute the atmosphere with their dirty, carcinogenic vehicles and those whose carbon footprints were smaller than their shoe-size, banning cars from the city centre will mean that, with the small businesses having gone bust and the big ones having moved, apart from a few lycra-clad cycling enthusiasts or die-hard bus fans, everyone will need to drive. But hey, the (ghost) town centre will be free from traffic.

The basic idea may be sound; but unless a viable alternative is offered, the proposed solution can often end up simply exacerbating the problem. Sometimes, Joe Public can see the daftness of what’s proposed — this petition to ban all traffic, but only at weekends (http://www.thepetitionsite.com/308/844/348/ban-motor-traffic-from-truro-city-centre-at-the-weekends/), for example, managed to glean only 1.4% of the support it hoped for; sometimes, though, our Joe gets swept along with the utopian hype.

1. truro

Having said that, whilst I may find myself shaking my head at the naivety or deliberately blinkered stupidity of many seemingly intelligent people who struggle to see the flaws in their idealistic views, I can’t help feeling that the chances of success of the things these keyboard petitioners get so exercised over are very limited. A year or so ago, I voiced my scepticism relating to the efficacy of these little pieces of public outrage/butthurt — causing one rather foolish but hot-headed individual (who delighted in exhorting people to embrace his naive political causes but could not bear anyone to question him or them) to ‘unfriend’ me on Facebook: how dare I suggest that the government might choose not to act on a petition with his name on it? This guy has a PhD so you’d think he has some experience of researching his material… and yet a simple query (‘Is there any documented proof, any statistical evidence, to show that online petitions actually work?’) threw him into a tail spin.

You see, I still don’t know. I, who also have a PhD and some experience of researching my material, have looked for evidence to support or refute my beliefs, and, confirmation bias notwithstanding, I have not been convinced. But I’m open to having my mind changed.

The organization 38 Degrees (tag line: People. Power. Change) has a link on its home page (https://you.38degrees.org.uk/) to ‘Campaigns we’ve won together so far’. Some of these do indeed seem like notable victories — over 100 thousand signatures to stop privatisation of the Land Registry, for example, or some 75 thousand demanding that the NHS publish details of their big spending — however, I can see no proof that the petitions have been in any way instrumental in the outcomes.

2. land registry5. nhs


If I dream about my old friend, Neil, one night, and the next afternoon he phones me, I do not think I have suddenly been granted the gift of oneiric prophecy; this is a coincidence, no more no less, and, for all I know, I may have dreamt about Neil a hundred times without his being overwhelmed with a mad desire to contact me — I simply do not remember because there’s been nothing to remind me. Equally, have these petitions ‘succeeded’ or has the eventual result been a simple coincidence? (How many fail and simply vanish from both the interweb and our collective memory?) The powers-that-be have, for their own reasons, had a rethink. Or, perhaps, the petitioner was going off half-cocked before any actual decision had been reached: in the case of building housing at Stonehenge, another petition 38 Degrees is touting as one of its victories, it seems that no ultimate decision has yet been reached, and will depend more on what UNESCO and World Heritage say than on what a few keyboard warriors want.

3. stonehenge

Or, back in May, we had one about allotments. Various people of my acquaintance were getting uptight about the threat to their parsnips and cauliflowers (despite the nearest many of them had been to soil-tilling and veggie-growing being the occasional mooch around their local farmers’ market once a month).

5. Allotments

Had these individuals bothered to check (as I did), they would have seen that their outrage was wasted — the government had refuted the accusations the month before: ‘An e-petition has been circulating suggesting that the Department for Communities and Local Government is examining plans to remove council duties to provide allotments. This is completely untrue and has no basis in fact’ (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-response-to-a-petition-on-allotment-duties). 38 Degrees removed the petition shortly after. Whether this was because I pointed out their error, I have no idea. In all probability, my comments had absolutely no impact… but hey, we’re in online petition land, so I claim all the kudos.

Certainly the petition, signed by thousands, asking for clemency when a young giraffe was sentenced to death, made not one iota of difference to the poor beast’s fate: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-26098935?

This isn't Marius. This is a random giraffe, who may or may not still be alive.

This isn’t Marius. This is a random giraffe, who may or may not still be alive.

And this from when Nadezhda Tolokonnikova ‘diasppeared’: http://act.watchdog.net/petitions/3998?share_ref=A8jeh4GFLD8

6. Nadya

(Nadya, in case you’ve forgotten, is a member of the anti-Putinist group, Pussy Riot, and was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for her subversive activities. For a while, no one knew where she was being kept.) I would very much like to know how many of the 97 thousand petition signatories actually did as they were bade and wrote to the Russian premier. Somehow, I suspect the figure was much, much smaller. Not that it matters; Ms Tolokonnikova subsequently reappeared, safe and sound. I’m sure that those who did write felt a rush of virtuous smugness when this happened. Personally, I think she turned up because she turned up. The paperwork had been lost, or her whereabouts were being kept sub rosa to prevent demonstrations and more arrests. I doubt very much that Vladimir Putin would have taken a blind bit of notice had he received 97 million letters asking for information/her release — he really doesn’t seem the type to kowtow to popular demands, now does he?

And, unless things have changed in the last day or so, I believe The Sun still shows young women’s chests on Page 3. Lucy Holmes still, after over two years of trying, has only 20% of the support she seeks.

7. page 3

(I have commented on this elsewhere: https://midmus.wordpress.com/2014/09/04/muddled-messages-mammaries-money-and-morality-or-why-i-wish-peopled-make-their-bloody-minds-up/)

Nonetheless, I can see that some petitions might be effective — a supermarket being threatened with ‘Stop making us pay to use your trolleys, Tesco, or we’ll go to Asda’ may well think it worth acting on. If enough people voice this opinion, and Asda is located only a stone’s throw way, then, what with Tesco having its market share to protect, and the pittance received from trolley-charging is worth sacrificing. And if, by removing this charge, Tesco is able to filch a few customers away from its rival, its directors will actively welcome the suggestion.

Coventry City Council, for example, invites e-petitions, claiming ‘We’re happy to receive petitions from those who live, work or study in Coventry. The Council recognises that it has a duty to listen to the concerns of residents and others who have a stake in the city’ (http://epetitions.coventry.gov.uk/). There is no guarantee that those petitions will be acted upon — but they might, if they go along with current thought, or suggest a solution to a problem that’s been troubling the Council for ages.

In similar vein, a government just before a General Election is likely to be more amenable to petitions than at any other time — but only if acceding to the petitioners’ demands is likely to win votes but cost the party nothing.

My aversion to this internet rabble-rousing/panic-mongering, however, goes beyond my suspicions of its futility; I further disapprove of the fact that, for many, clicking a link and typing their name will provide an adequate substitute for genuine action — ‘I was going to go and help my 85-year-old neighbour with her shopping and then talk to her for a couple of hours, but now I don’t need to get off my fat arse ‘cos I’ve just signed an online petition protesting against elder neglect.’

To give him his dues, the guy I mentioned earlier, the one who ‘unfriended’ me because I questioned his ostensibly deeply held beliefs in the power of online petitioning (I say ‘ostensibly’ because I find it hard to believe that anyone with true courage of his convictions would be so unnerved by someone casting doubt on their veracity), doesn’t limit his protests to the internet. He has been on a few demos and marches and, oh, the thrill, been among the elect who have actually handed over hard-copy petitions to Downing Street. But most of his activity — and, indeed, his livelihood — depends on his having access to a computer. This is his weapon and tool of choice. And yet his favourite field of battle is that of the environment, being ecological, reducing consumerism, living off the grid, crushing multinational conglomerates, being working-class (I’m never quite know what that means, myself),  getting back to nature. I have had no news of him or several months, but I’m sure he’s still promoting petitions to ban the very things his comfortable existence depends upon.

And now, today, I’ve just found another reason to roll my eyes and sigh loudly when it comes to this trend.

Some petitions are deliberately silly (‘Let’s get 1000 signatures to get [name] to stop picking his nose’), which is OK, because no one is really intended to take them seriously; but then there are things like this:

8. autism


As far as I can tell (and I may be wrong — the many ‘Child-free by choice’ Facebook pages could be to children what Britain First is to ethnic minorities), these groups are for people who don’t much like kids and have chosen not to have any, people who get sick of being expected to make allowances for the tantrums and misbehaviour of other people’s offspring. The post that’s offended Naomi Womack, the creator (who says that she and her sibling have diagnoses of autism), has evidently touched a raw nerve with her; however, that’s no reason to go around expecting every- or anyone else to share her hypersensitivity — and, I would venture, her lack of understanding.

I know various individuals who fall somewhere along the autism spectrum and I accept that they do indeed march to the beat of a different drum — but I have also encountered parents who simply can’t be bothered to discipline their children and, rather than correct their excesses, find it much less effort (and potentially more sympathy-garnering) to say ‘Oh, he can’t help it — he’s autistic.’

Well, like the ‘offensive’ post says, no, he isn’t. He is an ‘asshole’ — and yes, it is their fault. (Indeed, a friend who works in Mental Health points out that being an asshole and being autistic are not mutually exclusive, but that’s another matter.)

Claiming their special snowflake is autistic when he isn’t does no one any favours — they have to contend with their poor parenting when the sprog’s older; the kid grows up with no boundaries and ends up in prison because of it… and people who really do have an autistic spectrum disorder find themselves tarred with the same brush.

If Ms Womack genuinely wants the public to have a clearer understanding of autism, she would be better off sharing the group’s post and explaining (or getting someone to explain for her — her prose is not of the most elegant) the difference between unruly brats and children with a genuine neurodevelopmental disorder. But no… let’s get the keyboard warriors all riled up and try and get Facebook to take down the page. Sigh.

Maybe I should start an online petition to ban online petitions?