The petition of the 21st century will either be digital or will not be. The site change.org, which has just celebrated its second anniversary in France, has already gathered 3 million signatories since 2012 and 22,000 petitions have been launched. Two years have been enough to revive a method of protest whose scope was until now often symbolic and whose audience was generally confidential.
Change.org, which has existed in the United States since 2007, gained in notoriety in 2012 when the platform collected 2.5 million signatures demanding justice in the case of Trayvon Martin, a young black man killed by a security guard in Florida. Since then, the site, which collects grievances and demands from all walks of life – from consumers to whistleblowers through environmental activists – has become a weapon of mass protest. It is the breeding ground for local, national and even international mobilizations. In May, the “#bringbackourgirls” petition collected more than a million signatures to demand the release of the 200 girls kidnapped in Nigeria.
The strength of this tool and the fear of the leaders relies on the possibility to spread on a large scale and in record time messages of protest. Widely relayed on social networks, where people can instantly share the cause and invite to support it, the online petition has a powerful media echo. Moreover, it is particularly easy to use: click and it’s signed.
Faced with the risk of negative opinions spreading like wildfire on the web, many brands have already bowed to the complaints of petitioners. The petitioners obtained the withdrawal of Mango’s “slave style” jewelry line and an apology from the group. Eram, for its part, has pledged to stop using leather from farms linked to the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.
Consumers are not the only ones to use this powerful weapon. Citizens have also found it a great way to be heard when addressing the political class directly to defend their rights or challenge a decision. For example, the petition launched by the “Poussins” movement in April 2013 largely contributed to making the government back down on its attempt to reform the status of auto-entrepreneurs. Another example: on May 26, the magazine L’Express sent a petition to François Hollande asking for political asylum and refugee status for Edward Snowden. Among 138,000 French people were a plethora of illustrious names: Michel Rocard, Luc Ferry, Edgar Morin. The petition launched at the end of May in favor of a law on assisted suicide in 2014 has already attracted over 58,000 signatures.
Even if the rise in petitions – 500 new actions every 24 hours worldwide and 2 million additional members per month – risks reducing the impact of each of them, leaders must learn to deal with this new digital tool.
This is what the site has already anticipated by launching a new feature called “Decision Makers”. This new tool allows companies, institutions and political parties, which are regularly questioned on the platform, to be immediately informed when a petition concerns them. The “decision maker” can then respond to the signatories and submit information on the topic of the mobilization. The creator of the petition can in turn comment on these reactions and initiate a dialogue between the company/elected official and the consumers/citizens.
This offers a great opportunity to build an intelligent and constructive relationship with all stakeholders.
The online petition phenomenon has also inspired political authorities. In the United States, the White House introduced a service called “We the People” on its website in September 2011. Any petition gathering at least 100,000 signatures is examined by the executive branch. In Brussels, in 2013, the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) system was born, which allows the European Commission to be questioned on a subject provided that one million signatures are gathered in one year. The online petition thus becomes a real means of political pressure available to public opinion.
While the ballot box is less and less attractive, digital activism offers the possibility of a democratic renewal.