Growth in online petitioning in Australia: The case of Change.org
Australians are enthusiastic online petitioners, certainly more enthusiastic than the Australian Government. Despite the fact that online petitioning is increasingly common, our government’s online petition site does not approach the standard set by other countries like the United Kingdom or United States.
The gap in public civic infrastructure has largely been filled by commercial platforms, and in particular Change.org. What then can we say about who is using Change.org and to what participatory ends?
Using the free API from Change.org we extracted data of all petitions, creators and signatories in May 2017 (going back to Change.org’s launch in Australia in 2012), parsing out those petitions that appeared to originate in Australia. Our final data set included 17,000 petitions with 3,325,325 unique signers making up a total of 6,366,077 signatures.
Who is signing: mostly not “keyboard warriors”
There has been some public debate around online petitioning which suggests that a small number of individuals spam decision-makers across the full range of issues, making the “representativeness” of online petitions themselves less meaningful. This is closely related to the broader “clicktivism” debate whereby the low threshold for political engagement becomes a reason to devalue the significance of that act of participation, especially in the eyes of decision-makers.
It is true that there is a subset of highly active users who sign many petitions. In our data set, the top 5% of signers (by frequency of signing) account for over 30% of all signatures. Of all the signers, 707 signed over 100 petitions during the period we examined. However, nearly 2.5 million of the 3.3 million signers we identified (76%) signed only one petition, meaning the general portrayal of “keyboard warriors” signing hundreds of online petitions does not describe the vast majority of users.
Additionally, there is some evidence that online petitions are a way for traditionally underrepresented groups to participate. In our data set just over 50% of signers are female, 37% male, and the balance unknown. This supports Sheppard’s (2015) findings from her analysis of Australian Election Study data from 2010 which noted that women are more likely to sign online petitions than men(though this was notably before the growth in use of Change.org). Contrasting this, however, we identified that though women are more likely to sign petitions, men are more likely to create them (45% of creators are male, 36% female and the balance unknown).
Who are they targeting: mostly government, then corporations
Another perception that platforms like Change.org can face is that online petitions are largely frivolous or inconsequential in their substance. Though this can accurately describe some cases, like the Change.org petition which gathered 2476 signatures titled ‘build a space catapult and shoot the earth into a black hole’, it is widely an inaccurate generalisation.
When we coded all the petitions in our dataset, however, we found that over 50% of petitions do target one of the three tiers of Australian government about a substantive political issue. 24% targeted the federal government, compared with 17% directed at respective state governments and 11% at local government.
To gain more leverage over the topic substance of political petitions, we applied the Australian Policy Agendas code-scheme (Dowding, Hindmoor and Martin 2014). This code-book details 19 different policy-making and political topics covering issues like health, education and the environment and is used broadly in political science (see http://www.comparativeagendas.net/). We found that there were petitions across a wide range of topics. No single topic exceeds 10% of all petitions, however Law/Crime, Education, Health, and Transportation are the largest. The smallest topics are Macroeconomics, Defence and Foreign Trade, each comprising less than one per cent of petitions. The distribution of these topics suggests that those political issues which enter concretely into individual lived experiences through service delivery (like health and education) are more amenable to online petitioning than more systemic and abstract policy areas like macroeconomics.
Although most petitions are addressed to government, just over 18% of all petitions are targeted at corporations. An interesting feature of these corporate-focused petitions is that they range from issues of ethical-political consumerism to less political consumer action. Examples of ethical-political consumerist petitions included one asking the retail store Target to stop stocking the video game Grand Theft Auto 5 on the basis of its sexual violence (over 48 000 signatures) or the campaign to boycott Alan Jones over his comments that Julia Gillard’s father had “died of shame” (over 115 000 signatures). Less political petitions that nevertheless sought to aggregate consumer power included calls to keep Instagram’s feed chronological (over 342 000 signatures) or remaster the computer game Modern Warfare 2 for newer gaming consoles (over 221 000 signatures). It is a distinctive feature of commercial petition sites, like Change.org, compared with governmental platforms that the full spectrum of traditionally political, ethical-political consumerist, and non-political petitions are included side by side.
The Australian Government is currently holding an inquiry into the future of petitioning in the House of Representatives. Based on our ongoing research into Change.org in Australia, petitioning is increasingly online, mobilising a broad base of participants and flexibly directed toward a wide range of issues and targets. Never mind the future, the challenge for government is keeping up with the present.
This blog has been adapted from Halpin, Darren, Vromen, Ariadne, Vaughan, Michael and Raissi, Mahin. 2018. ‘Online petitioning and politics: the development of Change.org in Australia’. 53(4): 428-445. https://doi.org/10.1080/10361146.2018.1499010. Read it for free for the next month here.
Darren Halpin (Australian National University) is Professor of Political Science, co-editor of the journal Interest Groups and Advocacy and the Foundation Series Editor for the book series Interest Groups, Advocacy and Democracy (Palgrave, UK).
Ariadne Vromen (Sydney University) is Professor of Political Sociology, and her research interests include political participation, social movements, advocacy organisations, digital politics, and young people and politics.
Michael Vaughan is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney.
Mahin Raissi is Post-Doctoral researcher at the Australian National University.