Internet/Telecom/Social Media

We the petitioners

I’ve written in blog posts before how the Obama administration is probably the most Internet-friendly presidency to date. He was the first president to effectively use (and frankly have access to) social media to raise funds and win an election. He was the first president to do a Reddit AMA. So it seemed only natural that under the Obama administration, the first White House official online petition site would start.

We The People started in 2011 with the intention of allowing Internet users to petition the president’s policy staff on issues that they may be missing. Originally, the website required 5,000 signatures to warrant a response. Within two months of being introduced, the webmasters raised the signature threshold to 25,000. As of this week, the webmasters are once again raising the bar: a petition on the site must gather 100,000 signatures to require a response.

“As we move into a second term, petitions must receive 100,000 signatures in 30 days in order to receive an official response from the Obama administration,” said White House digital strategy director Macon Phillips in a Jan. 15 statement.

The Daily Caller reported that the new rule “follows a series of provocative, awkward or embarrassing petitions, some of which attracted enough signatures to meet the threshold.” Mr. Macon said in his statement that traffic on the site had increased sharply since the election. “In the first 10 months of 2012, it took an average of 18 days for a new petition to cross the 25,000-signature threshold,” he said. “In the last two months of the year, that average time was cut in half to just 9 days, and most petitions that crossed the threshold collected signatures within five days of their creation.”

The idea of raising the bar to 100,000 signatures is a practical response to some very unpractical (and very funny) petitions. Too bad it won’t work.

The signature bar has already been raised twice, because of how quickly these campaigns go viral. If someone sees a petition that moves them – whether that petition asks the military to stop using monkeys for training at Aberdeen, or releasing the White House ale recipe – they can simply sign up for a WTP account, sign the petition, and click “share.” Their friends will do the same, the cause will spread to other places (for example, online communities like Reddit and 4chan), and the “daisy chain” of action will continue until a petition has thousands of signatures, which will then garner a response.

Now putting the bar at 100,000 may filter out some of the petitions, but some will still reach this number. Two already have – for example, a petition to deport Piers Morgan for his views on gun rights earned 109,334 signatories. And 324,522 people want to recognize the Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group. The site will have to raise the bar again to an even higher number of signatories, which creates more problems.

The first article of the Bill of Rights guarantees Americans the right to petition their government for a redress of grievances. Which is exactly what We the People does. But people have different grievances they want redressed – some want a comprehensive approach to reforming Wall Street, some want a Death Star. And the First Amendment also protects speech, no matter how ridiculous it may be. So depending on how loosely you interpret the Constitution (which is a whole different argument), the First Amendment guarantees both our right to petition and our right to say ridiculous things in those petitions.

By opening this forum to the web, the White House has to understand that there will be ridiculous petitions, and many will get the necessary signatures to force a response – there are entire threads on forums devoted to driving up signatures on crazy campaigns.  The website could respond by moving the signature limit even higher than 100,000, but that would prevent any petition from getting a response, which defeats the point of the website. Plus, in theory, people could petition the We The People website to lower the threshold back down to 25,000.

The only definitive ways to prevent the “undesirable” petitions from popping up is to either hire a webmaster to take down the more outlandish requests – which could be interpreted as censorship, or take the site down – which would keep other legitimate campaigns from gathering support.

3 replies »

  1. Great post regarding the moving goalposts at the We the People, but I disagree that it is a valid mechanism for exercising one’s right to petition the government for redress of grievances. No redress comes of the responses. Expect no mea culpa or change in policy to result from it. From what I’ve seen, it serves as yet another talking points platform from which this administration can launch doublespeak-laden nonresponses to issues raised by sincere petitioners. Worse, by creating the illusion that it functions as a means to petition for redress of grievances, it serves as a distraction.

  2. I agree with Frank. The ability to click on a link to “sign” a petition is probably most often a reflexive act rather than a considered one.

    I gathered signatures on petitions during the ’60s and ’70s, usually to put a candidate’s name on a ballot. The signature seekers needed to be adept at quickly and succinctly explaining the petition and its purpose to potential signers. Persuasive skills and persistence were necessary.

    Each week, I receive emails from various outfits such as exhorting me to support Cause A or Cause B.

    Making the process of creating and signing petitions does not necessarily make those petitions meaningful … or effective.

    Excellent post, Alex. Thanks for writing it.