In September 2015, Lee Booth, a father from Gateshead, set up an online petition to campaign for children to be vaccinated against meningitis B, after his daughter aged six months was denied the vaccine. Children can only be vaccinated in the first two to five months of birth in current legislation, despite under-fives being the most vulnerable group for contracting the disease.
The petition, which aims to change medical legislation to allow a wider age-span of children to be vaccinated on the NHS, originally gained only 900 signatures. However, in February the petition recirculated when a family from Kent released shocking images of their young daughter, Faye Burdett, fighting the disease. These images and her subsequent death led to over 800,000 signatures, making the petition the most signed in parliamentary history. Now the petition has been rejected by the government, as the change would ‘not be cost effective’.
Many have questoned if petitions really have a place in politics today. They’re often dismissed as trivial and ineffective but roughly 1,500 online petitions are set up on Change.org every month. With more and more people turning to them to champion causes and campaigns, online petitions have a growing prominence.
Petitions are a tool to get the public voice heard and hopefully stimulate change or debate. If a petition gains 10,000 signatures the government will respond, and if a petition has over 100,000 signatures the issue will be debated in Parliament. The fact that the government considers petitions is telling of their potential importance.
However, the success rate of petitions getting through Parliament and leading to change is minimal, and it’s possible that Parliament’s flippancy about online petitions is more telling. Online petitions have also been dismissed as a form of ‘clicktivism’, a reductive form of online activism. Online petitions run the risk of reducing issues to a narrow online platform, condensing global issues to a mere click. It is questionable as to whether online petitions are the result of people campaigning about issues they are passionate about or a place for the bored to click away.
Movements like ‘Stop Taxing Periods’ have been enhanced by an online presence that saw over 310,000 people campaign against the taxing of sanitary products, but it’s important not to conflate the success of a global campaign with its popularity online.
Petitions spread awareness worldwide and connect people who’ve been denied the chance to campaign. A petition is a way for people to act together and a way for more people to voice their opinions, and the internet is an easy platform to do this.
In a world that’s constantly evolving both on and off line, and with the internet an increasingly important part of society, should we really dismiss all online petitions? Petitions are a long process for change, maybe the best is yet to come.