Are online protests really protests?

 

Protest is a performance, whether it is signing a petition or vandalising property, but the effect of the performance is largely dependent on the activists and the claims they are making. (Tilly et.al, 2015,p.15). Tilly makes the point that the internet has changed protesting, via means of ‘Hacktivism’ and online petitions, as well as the number of people with whom mass communication has helped to engage in some form of protest globally. (ibid,p.16)

Online petitions have taken off massively in the past few years,with governments across the globe as well as private groups setting up sites to host petitions. A petition can gain as many followers, if not more, than a traditional physical protest. In theory to have a huge global group of supporters is a good thing, however without the physical presence, the sight of the banners, the sound of the crowds’ chants and the appropriation of public space can an online campaign, or Mass Virtual Direct Actions (MVDA) have the same kind of impact? (Jordan et.al,2004,pp.79-80)

Opening access to direct action up to members of the public who previously may not have engaged with campaigns obviously feels like a step forward for democracy; what better way to engage the public in politics than by giving them an open and, allegedly, direct way of engaging with the government ? But do they actually work and have they made any noticeable difference?

The petitions site Change.org claims to have made 20,472 victories in 196 countries via means of e-petitions, and as of may 2014, the British based petitions group 38 Degrees had 2.5 million members.

In 2012, one year after the coalition government set up the E-petitions site it was reported that 36,000 petitions had submitted (with just over half of those gaining approval) and the site had been visited 17 million times, with an average of 46,500 visits a day, so it cannot be argued that the public are totally apathetic to protest, even if the  number of physical demonstrations seems lower than in the past. The government said themselves that petitions had had “significant impact’ on backbencher’s work” and that they hoped this new system would have “an important effect on the ability of the House to engage with the public.” 

However it has been argued that e-petitions give the public a false hope and unrealistic expectations of the parliamentary process.The Hansard Society have offered constructive criticism of the process, saying that “it is not, in its current form, a means to […] greater engagement in the political and specifically parliamentary process and it affords only limited opportunity for deliberation on the issues raised.” (Fox et.al, 2012,p.9).

I think that the jury is still out on the effectiveness, and the worthiness, of e-petitions, I have personally signed my fair share and have only seen occasional change as a result of them, however I am interested to reflect on them once I start investigating the history of protests and examining whether we can find any correlation between them and the petitions of the past.

 

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