Petitions!

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Today I want to ask some questions about e-petitions. I’m sure I don’t need to explain in detail, but e-petitions are calls for action or protest, circulated via the internet, that are able to be digitally signed by supporters.

The questions I want to ask are as follows:

  1. Why, given the official government e-petition site, are there now numerous groups running their own petitions? How are they funded?
  2. What does the potential over-population of this process mean? Does it water-down the message / impact?
  3. Why does it always ‘seem’ like engagement with these petitions is relatively low?

The reasons I am asking these questions is that I’ve noticed a change in my behaviour recently when it comes to internet petitions. I think it has been triggered by an increase in email I have started to receive, asking me to support various causes. Presumably this is because I have in the past, signed some petitions. However, my main concern is that I am getting to the point where I am deleting these emails before even reading the information, and as such, I am trying to examine why that is. Upon reflection, I think the above questions broadly represent my concerns. Hopefully in this blog, we can work through these together, and please feel free to post your views or further information to the comments if you think it will be informative.

Background

The UK has had an official e-petition system in place since around 2010-11. As I recall, it was heralded as being a step to more accountability and transparency (what isn’t?). The point was that any petition over 100,000 signatures can trigger a reading by a back-bench committee, and, if passed, then move onto a debate in the house of commons.

Of course, like most ‘accountable and transparent’ democratic powers, the caveats have a big impact. There is no requirement for the petition to be debated, a simple reason stated on the website can, and does, suffice in many cases (such as, ‘this issue is being looked at under another guise’, or simply ‘here are our reasons why we won’t look at this further’).

So, a once exciting sounding proposition, the power to set debate, very quickly diminished to the realms of ‘gimmick’ for a lot of people, I suspect. For a start it was flooded with badly written, misspelled calls for the death penalty to be reintroduced, and other quite extreme causes. Also, it seems from a quick inspection that many causes struggle to hit the threshold for debate anyway, and those that did/do, are often backed by newspaper campaigns, which to my mind, is much the same as what was happening before anyway (the media sets the agenda, the government responds).

NGO petition sites

More recently there has been a surge in none-government organisations offering the tools and services needed to start your own petition. Notable groups include 38 Degrees and the US based Change.org. A quick scan of funding methods for each reveal a big difference. 38 Degrees is a none profit organisation, funded by donations from members and charities. Change.org however, is a profit led business, paid by large NGOs like Amnesty International to run campaigns and also funded by advertising revenue. However, as a result of this funding model, it still offers a free service that anyone can use to run a campaign.

There are also other, less well known e-petition sites out there offering much the same. From a quick glance, I see the names ‘go petition’, ‘petition online’, ‘the petition site’, ‘i-petition’ etc..

So why so many?

It would seem to me that this is one sector where too much choice is potentially a very bad thing. Already I’ve listed seven sites, from a mere few minutes of research. So, take a message, have it represented seven times, in seven different ways, and distributed to seven different mailing lists and groups of users, and instead of one big resounding statement to deal with, you’ve got seven smaller none-unified voices to ignore.

Putting myself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t really want to listen to the united voices of the electorate, this division seems most helpful. Added to that the fact that the government have already given us a site for logging petitions, and yet we are choosing not to use it, I would have further reason to ignore the pressure from the none official groups.

Another way to look at it would be that having an open-sector will encourage the best to rise up to the top and keep innovating in order to more efficiently influence and win supporters to their platforms. Regardless of whatever funding model they are using, presumably some of the money has to be supporting jobs and salaries (which is fair enough), and therefore, competition is a healthy stimulant.

But then, it is us who are setting the campaigns, isn’t it? It is us who are after a democratic influence of our own, isn’t it? After all, we don’t want to open up yet another level of mediation between us and our representatives, influenced by supporting organisations and individuals, either privately or publicly, do we?

Successes.

So what are we achieving with this relatively new democratic tool. Today (12/03/2014) – These are the top successes featured on change and 38 degrees:

Change.Org:

  1. Bank of England keeps woman on English banknotes. (36,000 signed petition. Jane Austen to appear on Banknotes from 2017)
  2. Glasgow city council protect place in special need’s school. (7000 signed petition to reinstate transport costs for a student who would have otherwise not been able to attend)

38 Degrees:

  1. Don’t limit our GP visits – campaign by 38 degrees to overturn proposed plans by Conservatives to cap the number of times we can visit GP. A position denied and rejected by the Tories, and claimed as a victory by 38 degree’s.
  2. Olympic Tax Dodging – Multinational corporations agreed not to use a tax break offered for sponsoring Olympics due to consumer pressure, as campaigned for by 38 Degree’s.

Now, the government e-petition site doesn’t list ‘successes’ as it is just a gateway, so let’s look at the two most popular (now closed) petitions and the outcome:

  1. Stop the Badger Cull – 304,211 signatures. Closed 07/09/2013. Response: Basically nothing. It states that it will be discussed in the weekly backbench meeting, and that a response will be published soon… ? Obviously the highly unsuccessful and unpopular cull has ended now, but the principle on what happens next surely needs an answer?
  2. Convicted London rioters should lose all benefits – 258,272 signatures. Closed 09/02/2012. Response: Well it’s rather lengthy actually. It details the benefits  you already lose if you are convicted, the ways in which you can lose housing if you are convicted, and leaves some room for further debate about further sanctions.

The above, for me, shows something clearly. Yeah, have your petitions, but we’ll only take them seriously if we were going to do something like that anyway. So, no guarantee of action or changing views, just a tool to reinforce their own mandate when it comes along.

Due to that, I can see why a none-government alternative is a healthy option, but looking at the achievements of the top two NGO petition sites, there seems to be a leaning towards local victories, and less-clear government back-downs or u-turns that may, or may not, have been influenced. (after all, we are quite used to seeing policies challenged and dropped in early stages anyway).

Ultimately though, the petition, in whatever form, either lands on the lap or in the inbox of someone who is in no real way obliged to do anything about it, or at least, do anything of any substance about it. That is just the way it is, but I don’t mean that as a discouragement.

A quick thought on numbers

Very briefly, let’s look at those two ‘top’ closed petitions on the Gov site. 300,000 people wanted to save the badgers. At the last count, that’s about 0.5% of the population (if I’ve got my maths right). Change.Org can boast slightly higher, with just shy of 500,000 people urging Iain Duncan Smith to live off £53 a week (which funnily enough, he never did). But this doesn’t tangibly shift the percentage. 38 degrees is harder to quantify, with their emphasis on ‘campaigns’, I can’t seem to find actual petition info, as they offer various routes (such as mass emailing of MPs), so I don’t think it would be fair to compare.

Still, why are less than 1% of us being engaged by these routes? It seems very small. I would be interested to hear more about the average demographics if anyone knows of this information, and thoughts from the leaders of these organisations about this.

Working conclusion

So, although it may not feel it(!), this is a very brief blog to examine this phenomenon and its impacts, but I have some initial thoughts from spending the afternoon looking into it.

The government e-petition site is only as good as the will of the government monitoring it. It offers us little chance of affecting change if they can simply choose not to debate the issue, or only respond if it’s on their political ‘radar’ anyway. Given the numbers using it, why would they? Even at an all time low, ‘The Sun’ readership is currently around 6 million people. No wonder the government are more likely to listen to anything they print, representing (indirectly) a good 10% of the population.

As for the NGO petition sites, they seem more encouraging, though my quick research already shows that MPs have taken to debunking them as being ‘left’ affiliated instead of independent organisations. And for the profit based, anywhere where major advertising revenue is required for funding leaves open the possibility of corporate demands and intervention (and a quick search on the Change.Org advertising model does seem to throw up some controversies over this).

Personally, when I see an issue I am passionate about represented by one of these groups, or even a government e-petition, I shall continue to support them (though I may change my email settings to stop getting told about every campaign going!) – but more broadly, I think the debate about the effectiveness and future of this approach needs to continue (or start?), with more fundamental changes being sought to bring more power back to people and away from private interests. I would hate to see these organisations become protective over their new found powers, and hope to see more cooperation and focus on progressive, core issues. (Such as giving us the no suitable candidate box, for example? Or right to recall MPs?).

Anyway, while I have been writing this, I have received two emails from two different petition sites, one about secret courts, and one about food-banks. I would like to think that the few seconds it will take me to sign these (if I agree with them), will help change the world, but maybe we’ve got a little more work to do just yet. No harm in trying though, eh?

Some sources for you! (not exhaustive):

http://www.38degrees.org.uk/

http://www.change.org/

http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/22/changeorg-corporate-gop-campaigns-internal-documents_n_1987985.html

http://www.mediauk.com/newspapers/13707/the-sun/readership-figures

(supplemented by google and wikipedia searches/results for ‘change.org’, ’38 degrees’, ‘e-petitions’ and ‘British population’)

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Do we BENEFIT from IMMIGRATION? (a brief exploration of semantic influence).

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Can you see what I did there in the title? I conflated two loaded terms together to make one all pervasive semantically primed caption – designed to capture your attention and activate certain feelings and emotional responses that are being subconsciously suggested to you on a daily basis through the myriad of programming on these two topics.

Now, before you start screaming ‘lizard people!’ at me – this is not to say that someone or some group has sat down and decided to use the semantic priming of the electorate to stir up ill-feeling and division against certain groups of people in order to divert attention from themselves. No. That would be ridiculous wouldn’t it?

Of course, if the ongoing demonization of these perceived social sub-groups is not some diversion tactic by the powerful elite, then it must be something else. Stands to reason really. So what else could it be? Here are some options and considerations.

1.            We (as a collective entity incapable of individual thought) are genuinely concerned about benefits/migrants.

Sounds reasonable. I mean, there are no shades of grey here are they? We, the 63 million headed beast known as ‘the electorate’, have come to a majority consensus that we don’t like bene-grants, sorry, I mean, immi-fits, (whoops!) I mean benefits and immigrants.

I suppose that’s because we all wake up every day, covered in immigrants, go downstairs only to find we’ve lost our JOB to an immigrant and that we’re not entitled to any support because the welfare bill is being used by all those bloody benefit claimants. Then, as you walk down your street, which is full of immigrants and benefit CHEATS, you look through their windows and they’re all having a big party around a FLAT SCREEN TV, watching SKY, drinking BEER, smoking CIGARETTES, taking ILLEGAL DRUGS, committing other CRIME and having BABIES at our expense.

What’s worse is some of them are one and the same thing: immigrants on benefits (OMG!). And some of them look just like us so it’s hard to tell which is which and who to hate the most! I mean, we hate our ‘own’ benefit claimants anyway, so what if they are foreign? I suppose that means we hate them twice as much? Does it work like that?

For example, you are trapped in a burning building with two other people: one is a white British benefit claimant, the other is an immigrant benefit claimant. Only two of you can survive. Do you a) save the evil British person cos they’re only ‘one bad’, or b) save the ‘two bad’ evil foreign person because you probably are one too, or c) let yourself burn and let them both live (whatever!), or d) let them both burn as they are evil anyway and you are a better human being than them?

I suppose if you genuinely do hate immigrant/benefits then you will have given this much thought. I mean, ‘hate’ is a really strong word and historically has led to all sorts of problems, so you don’t want to take a subject like hating a whole section of society lightly. It’s not like you would just watch say, one episode of a ‘structured reality’ TV show on Channel 4 and come to this opinion, that would be absurd. (Or worse still – read the opinions of one newspaper and think that represents the whole complexity of the issue!)

2.            You are not so concerned about the individuals who are being targeted, more the impact on the economic situation these issues can cause.

We’ve moved up a notch here from burning people alive, for those of a more academic disposition. It’s not racist to talk about immigration after all, and it’s not elitist to talk about benefit claimants. To give you an idea of the kind of audience this option applies to, listen to any Radio 4 phone-in at the moment, or watch question time.

This kind of opinion doesn’t come from tabloids or scare tactics. How can it when you read broadsheets and watch the neutral BBC treatment of these topics? (mostly commissioned in response to the tabloids and political scare tactics – in order to represent a ‘balanced’ debate of the issues of the day).

Now we’re considering, in a mild mannered and measured way, the IMPACT on SCHOOL PLACES, on HOUSING, CRIME and the NATIONAL HEALTH SERVICE. Let alone the overall contribution to THE DEFICIT. We’re talking about immigration CAPS and CHECKS and BALANCES. Also, on what it means to make a FAIR CONTRIBUTION to the STATE. And this is the world of STATISTICS.

Funnily enough, this is also the world where during a three hour debate phone-in, an expert can happily tell us that there isn’t really a problem – that the figures are massively insignificant in comparison to say, financial fraud and tax evasion at the highest level – and yet no one stops the debate and says “oh well, there isn’t much point us continuing to talk about people on benefits and immigrants anymore if this isn’t really a problem compared to these other things.” No, the show continues to debate the none-issue anyway in a weekly series of ill-formed opinion tennis, as that’s what we want to hear, apparently.

It’s tempting to think, when listening to some semi-retired bed & breakfast owner in Torquay waxing lyrical about the strain on the NHS due to immigration, and how it wasn’t like that in ‘my day’, that they are only ever a stone’s throw away from suggesting we put up a big wall around the country and shoot on sight. But it’s okay, because they don’t mind immigrants as people because they met some nice one’s working in the 5 star hotel they once visited in London (even if they did have trouble understanding the accent). And they understand the plight of people out of work on benefits, but why should these people have FLAT SCREEN TVs, and not go out and GET A JOB like they did once in another decade/place/social situation?

You may have noticed throughout this blog that I have been using a lot of CAPS to emphasise certain key words. Not very subtle, and I’m sorry if it seems like I’m typographically shouting at you. The reason however was to see if anything illuminating comes from stringing these words together once I’d finished ironically appraising the broad ‘camps’ of public opinion as presented above.

Option 1 was, roughly, your tabloids and shock TV approach to making ‘folk devils’ out of immigrants and benefit claimants (‘folk devils’ by the way, is a social sciences term for how the media represent  sections of society perceived to be ‘out of order’ with the rest of us – often totally sensationalised and disconnected from the reality of the situation: there are theories that this comes out of political and corporate influence to divert attention and/or good old fashioned profiteering – both seem likely, both are probably true.) Option 2 was your BBC/Broadsheet coverage of these issues which does much the same with a different audience in mind and longer words.

So, we were left with a number of ‘buzz words’ that I have categorised below:

Public Services:

SCHOOL PLACES – NATIONAL HEALTH SERVICE – HOUSING – CRIME

Consumer Items:

FLAT SCREEN TV – SKY – BEER – CIGARETTES – HOUSING – ILLEGAL DRUGS

Lifestyle:

JOB – BABIES – CRIME – HOUSING

Economics:

THE DEFICIT – CAPS – CHECKS – BALANCES – CONTRIBUTION – STATE – STATISTICS

Emotive:

CHEATS – IMPACT – FAIR CONTRIBUTION – GET A JOB.

For me, this little list is basically a ‘picture postcard’ of almost every domestic political issue going, with a bit of advertising thrown in for good measure:

  • We all want high quality and easily accessible public services (no brainer). But these are suffering (for reasons such as benefits and immigration) and therefore need private help, unsurprisingly.
  • Owning a flat screen TV with an expensive SKY subscription is apparently the pinnacle of modern existence. Our reward for being good tax-payers. (Which makes it much more annoying when some cheat achieves this without even going to work!)
  • Alcohol, cigarettes and illegal drugs are almost pitched as envy items for the option 1 readers/viewers. After all, what we all really want (according to that view) is to watch SKY on our TVs while getting intoxicated one way or the other, especially if you are in a low paid job with little prospects. So these migrants and benefit claimants are cheating their way to that ideal. Naughty. Furthermore, for the option 2 view – these are mostly seen as repugnant vice’s, putting moral distance between ‘them’ and ‘us’. For option 2 views, we want to be able to watch our flat screen TVs enjoying moderate legal intoxication. Because, as stated, that is the aim of all humanity.
  • Apart from that, we all want to work, no matter the job(?). Breeding is arguably one of the certain motivations of all life, and having somewhere to live one of the others. If you don’t want to work, you’re probably a criminal (although robbery does involve a lot of heavy lifting I hear).
  • But we can’t have all these thing all the time because of the economic deficit! That’s why we need checks and balances and caps on (all manner of) things. Use the words state control instead: it’s easier and more accurate. Plus we need to contribute to survive, and that’s shown in the official statistics for almost every aspect of our existence. (And again, if you don’t, you are probably a criminal).
  • Which brings us to the ‘idea’ of fairness. Which boils down to: get a job and contribute to avoid the crushing and devastating impacts that cometh to us if we don’t. (Or be a criminal and face punishment).

And who is to blame (at the moment) if we can’t have these things in the way we want, as often as we want, without concessions? One, two three… The immigrants and benefit cheats! Yes! We have an answer to all our problems, as spelled out to us daily in every article, debate, documentary and news item to grace our senses.

Now, Mr and Mrs readers – I hardly need to tell you all this. You are after all probably not who this type of media is aimed at (or maybe you are, I have no way of knowing), and are probably unsurprised about these conclusions. The question I want to ask is BUT WHY? And WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT IT? I don’t have these answers yet, and don’t think any one person can without consensus, but I would really like to know what those of us who aren’t swayed by sensationalism and rhetoric can do to help those that are. Because this is making a real and negative difference. It’s not the migrants and benefit claimants who are the problem (at the very least, not to any degree of scale as is being portrayed) – it is the media representation (for whatever motives, political and private), and it needs to stop.

Please send your ideas on a postcard to Mr Cameron, 10 Downing Street, or alternatively, leave them in the comments box below.

Thank you for reading.