How Digital Petitions Make Real World Change

Think clicktivism never changed anything? Think again. We dive into the ways one of the biggest petition sites on the internet, Change.org, is giving democracy a shot in the arm

In a lot of ways, petitions have always been the least sexy form of activism. There’s no explosions, no street battles, no getting cuffed and stuffed in the back of a bully van—it’s door to door stuff, dragging people away from their ironing to begrudgingly answer. It’s the Jehovah’s Witnessing of advocacy.

In the Internet age, though, this has changed. Petitions are no longer just used by fusty village people trying to get various hedges trimmed to a legal standard, but by everyone. Gone are the days of printed Excel spreadsheets with scrawled signatures—now is the time of hundreds of thousands of digital imprints put forth to support a variety of subjects.

Change dot org has been at the forefront of this transition since it started in California in 2007. As a campaigning platform they do not take one side or another editorially, rather facilitate people’s desire to enact whatever change they feel they need to see in the world. (Repeating the word ‘change’ in an article about Change.org on Change Incorporated is going to be hard to avoid so bear with me.)

Kajal Odedra, UK director of Change.org

Kajal Odedra is the UK director of Change.org. For her, the focus is on getting petitions that are gaining traction the help they need to flourish.

 “We’ve got a community of 18 million people on our UK email list who have signed or started campaigns and they’re the people that we’re looking to send other campaigns to,” she tells me over the phone.  “We’re looking for stories that they’d want to read about and things that are relevant in the news. When you read a news story you’re like, ‘I want to do something about this’, hopefully you’ll get an email that morning from Change.org with a petition, a person who’s been affected by that issue telling you how you can make a difference. My team basically selects those campaigns.”

It’s a level of assistance that some have found priceless in the Covid era of petitioning. Lucy Wathan started a petition demanding PPE (personal protective equipment) for all frontline NHS staff in the UK. “I was hoping to get to 100 signatures,” she says. “Now it’s at almost 700,000.” At the time of writing, Lucy’s petition has gained a further 100,000 signatures.

Lucy was inspired to start her petition after reading Odedra’s book Do Something: Activism for Everyone.

 “I tweeted Kajal on Twitter because I was like, ‘you inspired me to create a petition’. Then she replied and I said ‘is it possible to link up with the other petitions about PPE?’ Then she said to direct message her. Then she put me in contact with members of her team. So I’ve spoken to two people mainly at Change.org.”

The help from Change HQ was especially appreciated, as Lucy’s petition comes from a personal place.

 “[My boyfriend] is a nurse and I was just appalled by what was going on. I decided to write up his words in the form of a petition, as he’s not English, he’s Spanish, and I felt like I was able to give him a bit more of a voice, because it’s not his native language. He wouldn’t want to speak publicly anyway really because there’s a chance that he might get told off.”

While Lucy’s story is one of introduction to this type of activism and change-making, others are on their second trip around the block.

Mark Topps is a care home manager in Southend, UK. His petition demands the testing of all frontline care workers, for the benefit of themselves and their families who are all at risk. His petition is only 10,000 signatures away from its goal of 300,000.

Mark is no stranger to the petition game. In 2018, Iceland’s tear-jerking-anti-palm-oil-pro-orangutan advert was deemed too political by ad clearance service Clearcast, and was thus not shown on TV over the Christmas period. Iceland had made the pledge not to use palm oil any longer in their own brand products, and the clip was made by environmentalist giant Greenpeace.

Mark saw this sort-of ban as an injustice, and took to Change.org to see what could be done. Naturally, when something so close to home became a huge problem, he knew where to turn.

“I made a petition with them and that just went viral. It got shared by quite a few celebrities and had over a million signatures. That was the first petition I’d ever done. So when I thought about doing this petition I knew the website, I knew kind of how to do a petition on there and how to do updates for people. I think because I’d used them before I went for them as opposed to using anywhere else. When I did the original one for the Iceland advert I found the staff at Change were really helpful with giving me updates and also giving me prompts and tips and hints, how to post an update…so I was naturally just drawn back to using them.”

There’s so much power in solidarity and realising you’re not alone

For Kajal, democratizing activism is of the utmost importance.

“There’s so much power in solidarity and realising you’re not alone. I think we see politicians and companies react in different ways and I think the politicians that really get it and are embracing petitions are the ones that understand giving people an opportunity to have their say is not a bad thing, it’s actually just intrinsically really, really good for democracy. Because if you feel heard then you’re more likely to engage in voting, encouraging other people to get involved in their local community. It’s a really powerful thing for other people to say…’yeah, I agree with you’. It’s a bit like, on a really micro level, if you write something on Facebook and you get 50 people who like it, you feel heard, like ok, I’m not alone in this.”

It’s also important in all the fluffy idealism to remember that these things need to be realised past the signatures. One example Odedra is particularly fond of is the changing of legislation regarding the tampon tax. 

“That was started by Laura Coryton when she was a student. She was trying to distract herself from revising. She was googling and found out women were getting charged VAT on sanitary products, and also that tampons were deemed a luxury item. She thought that was bananas, so started a petition.”

Lucy Wathan started a petition demanding PPE for all frontline NHS staff in the UK

It was a subject that had been debated fiercely in feminist circles for years, but the petition, and its wide reach, pushed the subject into the limelight, in front of people who had no idea it even existed. 

“Now the government has ended the tampon tax and by the end of the year will no longer have a VAT on tampons. Not only that, it was the knock-on effects of that campaign that we don’t necessarily see explicitly, or talk about explicitly... But also she just started this incredible movement of people talking about periods and that led to other people starting other campaigns about periods so that led to Amika George starting a campaign to end period poverty and that was then a victory.”

“I think when Laura started the petition it was a real taboo to talk about periods and tampons. When we were talking about it in the office back then, it was in 2014, it was still sniggering. Now it’s just a very, very normal thing and Laura was massively part of changing that taboo of society. So that one is quite big. I mean there’s so many.”

It’s not only in the UK that coronavirus-related petitions are taking off. A similar petition to Lucy’s about PPE in the USA is a fly’s wing away from 2 million signatures. In Italy, where, fingers crossed, the worst of the ravaging is over, is asking for the safe reopening of hair salons—if it’s judged viable for public health to do so. 

For the sake of all those working in frontline jobs, across care homes and the NHS, we hope the voices of these people will be heeded. As usual, it’s up to those in power to do the right thing.