Sunday, 20 March 2016

I was an Online Activist

It has never been easier to create a petition. Platforms such as and make it drop dead simple to assemble the basic components of a petition and to create a ready-made product that is shareable and interactive (to the extent that adding your name and allowing for comments is interactive). The technology is easy. The other stuff is hard.

The first (major) hurdle was conceptual: what would the petition be about? On one hand, when a problem is organic in nature, this might not be an issue at all. That is to say, when there is an issue that you want to bring attention to, the tools are right there at your disposal to enable you to coalesce support. In absence of such an issue, these platforms are solutions in search of a problem. This speaks to authenticity. For me this was a roadblock. Psychologically, a petition is not my go-to tool for initiating change but rather a tool to be used once other avenues have been exhausted.

Along with that was an issue of ownership. It was a psychological hurdle for me to put forward a petition that I had very little interest in standing by long-term. It just seemed wrong. On the one hand, the petition is just one digital drop in a huge online ocean. But if it doesn’t matter, then why do it? Along a different line, if a digital pebble causes waves in an online ocean, it presumably will have some effect on others. I am either helping or hurting a cause through my presentation, and if I am not willing to own the problem, I stand a better chance of hurting it. If I’m not authentically looking to enact positive change, I should also do no harm. I had to come to grips that this would be artificial endeavour for me.

A last conceptual problem for me was ‘crowdedness’, i.e. how many other like petitions were out there? While there is evidence that creation of an online petition does not negatively impact real-word activity (Christensen, 2011), I’m not sure what the effect of fragmentation is online. If a petition already exists online for the cause I support, is it not better supporting that one and bringing my network to it (signing and publicizing)? As evidenced in Kriess (2012) there is power in network building, not the creation of multiple, isolated silos. I suppose there is benefit in framing a cause within a specific context (local impact) and targeting a specific and unique individual to receive and respond to it. 

With all those asterisks in mind, I eventually opted to land on a soft target: Donald Trump and Republican Nomination process. Everything about it is chaotic so I had few qualms in contributing to it. Specifically, the petition is (ostensibly) directed towards Donald Trump to both encourage a de-escalation of violent rhetoric and respecting convention rules (specifically those regarding capturing the specified number of delegates to gain nomination). To wit:


As mentioned above, creation of the petition itself was easy. The lack of formatting options for the content was limited, but that probably is for the best as it lends itself to forcing users to get to/stick to a point. One thing that surprised me was the plasticity of the petition. Once published it remained editable: text, graphic, title, URL, recipient list, etc. The more benign side-effect is that a petition can collect signatures and adjust itself according to engagement, akin to’s “laboratory for vitality” (Cadwalladr, 2013). It is possible to publish the petition, seed the links, gauge response, and adjust message while retaining any signatories received to date. Alternately, and more troubling, one could conceivably create a petition, collect signatures, and change the message to a polar opposite of the original intent.

Another aspect of validity is the lack of vetting of the signatures. Anything will do. It is uncertain what safeguards are in place to ensure signatures are backed by real bodies. Compare to official ePetition systems of Canada and the US which include some form of user verification, as well as a formal channel into official consideration.

Now that my petition was published, then what? On its own, it does nothing. Gaining signatures requires some legwork (click-work?) by the petition creator, hustling it via social network(s) and hoping for some degree of virality. I opted to shop it on Twitter for a while. There seems to be an interesting economics of engagement. ‘Likes’ are easiest to obtain, retweets harder, and actual signatures the hardest to achieve. This suggest an ePetition has some power separate and apart from its list of signatories. It is also a communications vehicle that can help to build a “logic of networks” in the Juris sense (2012, p. 260), essentially building a network of people, groups, or organizations connected to a similar or larger cause. These connections may lay the groundwork for coordinated, actual action; a “logic of aggregation” (Juris, 2012, p. 260).

In some sense, the larger value of the ePetition is not so much in its explicit campaign, but in the activity which surrounds it. This may include micro-messaging included in Tweets that extend the meaning beyond the petition text, but also its contribution to the extended conversation amongst social media users that enters the murky politicized fray and subterfuge as outlined by Kreiss (2012).
There is churn of ideas, a back and forth of likes and retweets, that create a larger narrative. In trying to hustle a petition, I am also contributing to the aggregate.

Almost certainly this was a vanity petition well within the boundaries outlined by Christensen (2012): at a low bar, it at least made me feel good; at best, it helped to reinforce existing beliefs for myself and others already engaged.


Christensen, H.S. (2011). “Political Activities on the Internet: Slacktivism or Political Participation by Other Means?” First Monday, doi:10.5210/fm.v16i2.3336.

Cadwalladr, C. (2013). “Inside Avaaz – Can Online Activism Really Change the World?” The Guardian­online­activism­can­it­change­the­world

Drew. (2008, July 23). Toothpaste for Dinner. Retrieved March 19, 2016, from 

Juris, J. (2012). “R eflections on #Occupy Everywhere: Social Media, Public Space, 11 University of Alberta Faculty of Extension and Emerging Logics of Aggregation.” American Ethnologist, (2), 259. doi:10.1111/j.1548­1425.2012.01362.x

Kreiss, D. (2012). “Acting in the Public Sphere: The 2008 Obama Campaign’s Strategic Use of New Media to Shape Narratives of the Presidential Race,” Research in Social Movements, Conflict and Change,

Marko, N. (2016, March 19). Donald Trump: No Intimidation! Retrieved March 20, 2016, from


  1. "The petition is just one digital drop in a huge online ocean". Yes! Thanks for articulating this, Marko. You are on point with the metaphors.

    I agree that "crowdedness" is an important factor to consider when looking at online petitions. After I chose my topic, a dearth of petitions were already existed (Killham, 2016). Were it not for this assignment, I would have signed another petition and not made my own.

    We took a similar approach to this project, I think ( ) . I found it difficult to commit to creating a petition and want to delete it as soon as the course is over.


    Killham, E. (2016, February 18). “Online petitions universally support Apple encryption stance.” Cult of Mac [website]. Retrieved March 07, 2016, from

  2. this video plays on deriding clicktivsm. but as you point out, even the girl in the video is (partially) vindicated by her contributions to the aggregate civic dialogue. whether we like that or not merely unearths our privileged view that civic life has largely been managed between slightly different approaches of educated and serious leaders. Enter extremism...

  3. Gwyneth, I really liked your post. I share many of your views. You presented strong cases of the down side of slacktivism. Clearly those campaigns didn't solve the problems they set out to and we're left to decide whether their moment of virality was better or worse than none-at-all for the cause.

    That said, I'm not prepared to write-off slacktivism entirely.

    On point of this assignment, online petitions are probably the weakest form of slacktivism. I think they become, at best, a content piece that probably has more in common with viral videos, posts, articles, awareness campaigns, etc. than for their actual activist strength (has anyone every seen/heard of an online petition being delivered to its target and what the outcome actually was?). But isn't viral content, in general, kind of like a petition? Facebook or Twitter users 'sign' them with likes, shares, and retweets? Do petitions mean anything in an environment where public opinion is seemingly unendingly quantified?

    Sean, the video you link plays as parody but is vindicated by research! Virality, emerging through the weak participation of the slacktivists, may not be so insignificant after all. A recent study by Pablo Barberá suggests "online engagement is key to turning a protest into a social movement and in prolonging its lifespan" (Groetzinger, 2015).

    From the study:

    "Independent of the social and material constraints that might restrict mobilization, our findings demonstrate that relatively low commitment participants–who are often derided as feel-good activists or “slacktivists” [2, 3]–are potentially very important as a collective. By expanding the audience of messages sent by the committed minority, the periphery can amplify the core voices and actions, and thus provide a way for larger numbers of online citizens to be exposed to news and information about the protest, even (or especially) in the absence of mass media coverage. The availability of information about protest events is important because it can increase support for opposition parties [34] and lower the effective cost of participating, potentially leading to broader anti-regime action [35], as evidenced by the close correspondence between online protest activity and offline collective action [20]." (Barberá, 2015).

    Lastly, here's an obit for Rob Ford which (I think?) touches on your last point (the disconnect between a population and its ruling elite, here manifesting itself in populism through Ford rather than extremism per se):


    Barberá, P., Wang, N., Bonneau, R., Jost, J. T., Nagler, J., Tucker, J., & González-Bailón, S. (2015, November 30). The Critical Periphery in the Growth of Social Protests. Retrieved March 23, 2016, from

    Groetzinger, K. (2015, December 10). Slacktivism is having a powerful real-world impact, new research shows. Retrieved March 23, 2016, from

    Preville, P. (2016, March 22). Rob Ford may have been good for Toronto after all | Toronto Life. Retrieved March 23, 2016, from

  4. I can relate with the mental hurdle. I had no intentions of standing by the petition we were required to relate, especially because no matter what I thought of, I couldn't think of anything that would actually benefit from a petition. Plus, I wasn't going to be sharing it on social media or pushing for signatures. I guess that mental hurdle won out. There were a few other petitions that I saw similar to mine but didn't make it anywhere.

    Anyway I look at it, Slacktivism needs to be paired with activism to have any change. There needs to be something else pushing awareness and riling the masses besides online signatures. Even if it's just a few people being the activists with an army of slacktivists.

    There's an article discussing the potential of slacktivism to help in the wildly talked about Steven Avery case from making a murder. It talks about the mass signatures on and trending topics on Social Media:

    But there wouldn't be such a fire around the topic if it wasn't for the Documentary itself, something that took years to develop before being released on Netflix. Social media and online petitions provide a platform for everyone who watched the Documentary to come together, but it was the series that really created the awareness and caused people to care.