The merits of online petitions

Within a few days of eachother two events brought online petitions to my notice. A colleague at Cardiff University sent me an e-mail urging me - and many others - to sign one. The cause was undoubtedly worthy: freedom of the press in Russia. The recommendation came from someone I respect and like: the author of this blog. Not only that, the recommendation was from someone with whom I rarely agree on political matters, so it seems particularly appropriate for us to pool our resources on the occasions on which we do agree. I discarded the e-mail after a cursory glance and did not follow the link.

The second event was an item in The Times about the worth of online petitions. It demonstrates one weakness of the online medium in that the link to the article is faulty, and I have been unable to read it. I am afraid I cannot tell you whether the author believes such petitions are utterly useless of a powerful tool of democracy. I do know that I would take some persuading from my own inclination that they are meaningless.

The Guardian's Notes & Queries website has three discussions on the question of petitions. Two dedicated to online and e-mail petitions. The consensus seems to be that they are worthless. I arrived too late to be the first to ask why those participating thought paper petitions had any value. E-mail addresses are unverifiable. But so, let's be frank, are signatures.

Even if a petition could persuade a politician or industrialist that a majority opposed their plans, would that lead to a change of policy? I doubt it, but the question has never arisen. If you want to find out the opinions of large numbers of people, there are far better ways of doing it.

Are street demonstrations meaningful? Apparently they are in France. But in most democracies they are not. For one thing, a demonstration tells you how passionately a small number of people feel about a subject. It does not tell you anything about how many people share that view.

If a million people in Britain march against a government policy, what does that tell you? That at least one sixtieth of the population opposes the government on this matter, and probably a great many more. It is likely that for everyone marching there are several people not marching sharing their views. So a million on a demonstration - something comparable with the very biggest demonstrations ever seen in Britain - could reflect five, ten, or fifty million opposing the government. Why on Earth would any government act on information that vague? Better, by far, to read newspaper editorials and commission opinion polls.

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