The internet has helped connect civilians with their elected officials like no other technology in the past. From Twitter and Facebook to YouTube and “We the People” petitions, ordinary people can converse with politicians and have their concerns directly addressed. By garnering 100,000 signatures, online petitioners in the U.S. can force the powers that be to respond to topical tidbits like should Edward Snowden be pardoned, as well as pressing matters such as whether the government should build a Death Star.
Over in the U.K., a similar system exists. The latest petition to circulate social media conduits in Blighty is this one: Prevent Donald Trump from making a State Visit to the United Kingdom. Only 10,000 signatures are required for the government to be compelled to provide an official response, while 100,000 succeeds in winning a full debate in Parliament. At the time of writing, the petition has gained more than 1.6 million signatories, a figure that’s rising fast.
To be clear, the petition doesn’t demand that Donald Trump be prevented from entering the U.K., it merely asks that he not be permitted to make an official state visit. Why? Well, the petition states that an official visit would require him to meet the Queen, thereby causing Her Majesty “embarrassment” in the wake of Trump’s controversial executive order banning travelers from some Muslim-majority countries. Of course, the goal of the movement, ultimately, is to downgrade Trump’s status and ensure he doesn’t receive the red carpet treatment.
Even before a parliamentary debate on the matter, the U.K. government has already confirmed that it won’t be withdrawing or altering its invite for Trump’s visit later this year. This comes almost exactly a year after another petition requested that Trump be barred from entering the U.K. following similar remarks he made about banning Muslim people from entering the U.S. Back then, Trump was little more than a presidential long shot, with few giving him much hope of entering the White House. So if there was ever going to be a time when Trump would be banned from entering the U.K., it would’ve been then. Nonetheless, there was a debate, in which Trump was referred to as a buffoon and a demagogue, but that was as far as things went.
Now that Donald Trump is president of the United States, and the U.K. is fighting to win friends outside the European Union in the wake of Brexit, the chances of Trump being treated as anything other than a VIP are zero. The petition could hit 40 million signatures, and it would make little difference.
So this leads us to an important question: What is the purpose of signing online petitions and sharing through social media? And is it ultimately counterproductive?
Whenever a good cause comes to your attention, be it related to climate change or some other matter that’s close to your heart, the easy thing to do is to share something on social media. That could mean tweeting a link to a newspaper article that supports your beliefs on a specific topic. It could also mean launching a JustGiving fundraising page and sharing it to Facebook, or, indeed, signing an online petition in support of your cause… and asking all your friends on Facebook to join in.
Each March, Earth Hour asks that everyone — from individuals to businesses — turn off their lights for an hour as a symbolic show of support to save the planet. While it’s a well-intentioned initiative, some naysayers have argued that it actually has an adverse impact because it serves as a “feel-good event” that makes people think they are doing their part for the environment, even though their long-term behavior remains unchanged.
And there may be more than a grain of truth in that. Real, impactful change comes from permanent and widespread modifications of behavior, such as how you travel to work, what food you consume, and so on. By encouraging people to switch their lights off for an hour, Earth Hour may succeed in raising awareness for its cause, but it could be that people participate to alleviate guilt over their lifestyle choices without actually making wholesale changes.
A similar criticism could be levied at other good causes. For example, people may choose to donate $10 a month to a charity of their choice, which makes them feel as though they are helping out, even though their actions on a day-to-day basis do little to solve whatever the problem may be.
To be clear, the argument here isn’t that donating money to good causes or sharing information through social media are bad things — they are not. Not everyone has the time or inclination to dedicate themselves to causes they care about, so giving in other ways makes sense. But such instant and easy gratification could be a distraction from real and permanent solutions.
“Slacktivism,” or “clicktivism,” is nothing new, of course, and it has been criticized and defended in roughly equal doses. But these tactics are at their most powerful when they’re used as a mode of communication to not only raise awareness but to organize real-world events.
Put simply, online and offline protests aren’t mutually exclusive.
Physical over digital
Though there has been a great deal of “digital protest” before and after Trump’s election victory — in the U.S. and elsewhere — it has been heartening to see that people haven’t lost their desire to protest in person.
The Women’s March around Donald Trump’s inauguration turned into something of a global movement, while airports around the U.S. saw crowds gather to decry Trump’s Executive Order on immigration — chanting “Let them in” to support immigrants and travelers held up at border control.
— Ted Alexandro (@tedalexandro) January 28, 2017
Social media can be fertile ground for organizing real-world protests. London is already gearing up to host one of the “biggest ever protests” when Donald Trump visits the city later this year. And Facebook is proving to be instrumental in spreading the word.
It appears that the public know that physical protests are better than online initiatives. That said, there is still a danger that too many lean on digital platforms to air their grievances — “I signed a petition, I did my bit.”
In the dark days of yore, when “social media” would’ve meant little beyond the “friendly and outgoing” demeanor of those working in the newspaper industry, the only way to have your voice heard was to pound the pavements, placard in hand. But perhaps now more than ever, you can’t duplicate the potency of a crowd of people gathering in support of a cause. It forces the powers that be to sit up and take notice.
So by all means sign your petition and share it to Facebook. But don’t forget to also turn up and make your presence known in the real world, where it really matters. So long as it’s peaceful, of course.