New media rules: Power of the online petition

Petitioning platforms have helped raise awareness of important issues – but is it really effective?

July 19, 2012 13:07
4 minute read.
Power of the online petition

Power of the online petition . (photo credit: Screenshot)


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If you’ve been on Facebook lately, chances are you’ve received a request to sign a petition calling on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to observe one minute of silence at the opening of next week’s games in London.

The move is meant to commemorate the 11 Israeli athletes killed by terrorists at the Munich games 40 years ago, and already close to 100,000 people worldwide have signed the petition on social action website by Ankie Spitzer – the widow of Andrei Spitzer, who was killed at the Munich games – with support from the Jewish Community Center in Rockland, New York, the online petition has also drawn attention from media outlets far and wide and backing from numerous political leaders.

Nonetheless, the IOC has still – at least this year – not agreed to pay tribute to those who died in Munich. While those driving the petition vow to continue fighting, what has become clear is that even though such online petitions are effective in getting enormous attention and mass support, they are not always enough to make the desired change.

In other words, while it might be easier and quicker than ever before to get thousands of people signing a petition, like many social protests launched in the virtual world, the question remains: Are they effective in reality? According to Steve Gold, chairman of the “Munich 11 Minute of Silence Petition” at the Rockland JCC, the fact that there will be no minute of silence at the London games’ opening does not detract from the petition’s overall success.

“One hundred thousand signatures is pretty astounding; however, what is even more astounding is the comments that have accompanied those signatures,” he observes. “This petition has finally provided an outlet for people to express their feelings about something that happened 40 years ago.”

He adds, “We feel it has definitely been effective, and we got the IOC to pay attention to the issue in a way they have not done before. Unfortunately they said ‘no’ this time, but we will not stop. We will continue on with this petition until there is a change.”

WHILE THE “Minute of Silence” petition has yet to clinch that change, Benjamin Joffe-Walt, director of communications for the US-based – one of the most popular platforms for online petitions – believes that digital drives can have an impact, even if some are not ultimately successful.

“Just like there are both videos that have a profound impact and those that don’t, there are petitions that have a profound impact and those that don’t,” he says.

“Online petitions are incredibly effective, and multiple campaigns on win every day,” he continues, adding that last year alone, more than 800 petitions featured on the site found success.

Joffe-Walt says that thanks to the massive reach of digital media, online campaigns have “the potential to be exponentially more impactful than any strategy of mass organizing to date.”

“One person can use to connect with tens of thousands of supporters from all over the world around an issue they care about in a matter of hours,” he points out. “That kind of power never existed before, and it’s behind a lot of the social movements we’ve seen over the past five to 10 years.”

And, he adds, it makes little difference if the campaigns are aimed at individuals, commercial businesses or governments.

For a petition to be successful, the message has to be very clear and to the point.

ONE JEWISH-THEMED online campaign with a very clear message is aimed at removing all Holocaust-denial pages and groups from Facebook. The campaign centers on two online petitions – Care2 and – and also a Facebook group, “Ban all Holocaust denial pages and groups from Facebook,” which helps to empower those devoted to this specific cause.

Holocaust denial pages and groups on Facebook are not part of genuine free speech, explains Randi Susan Klein, a California- based attorney and an activist for this cause. She claims the goal of Holocaust deniers online is to “distort the truth, to push an agenda of anti-Semitism, and to find like-minded people.”

Such hate speech, she says, should not be allowed on Facebook.

While the two petitions have drawn roughly 1,000 signatures each so far, Klein is attempting to use the Facebook group to spotlight and weed out the Holocaust denial, neo-Nazi and and “holohoax” sites all over the Web.

She still has no way of knowing if the campaign will be enough to convince the social networking site to ban such groups, but she is clear that there is “strength in numbers.”

“My Facebook group was able to get some of the most vile pages and individual profiles removed, simply by reporting them in mass numbers,” she says. “Therefore, if we get enough signatures, I am hopeful that these two petitions will bring about the changes we seek.”

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