A petition for petitions
BridgeND | Wednesday, August 26, 2020
In 2020, petitions seem to have become a regular part of life.
This past summer, everything from large-scale social movements to small calls-to-action have increased public knowledge about critical issues. Individuals began speaking out on topics from the coronavirus to voter participation to Black Lives Matter to Notre Dame’s administrative policies. Social media became a catalyst for change as a new generation of leaders began using this platform to spread awareness to encourage action. For example, there were about 23.9 million total posts with #BlackLivesMatter on Instagram by Aug. 19. According to Pew Research, 8.8 million tweets containing #BlackLivesMatter were sent on May 28 alone. Along with these posts and hashtags, petitions have been circulating as a way to make change through social media. It seems to be much more common now for social media users to ask their followers to sign a petition in their bio.
Despite wide ranges in structure and formality, petitions share the same goals: to make peoples’ voices heard and to call for change. For instance, many petitions for national issues can be found on change.org, a site where any user can start a petition and begin amassing signatures from supporters. Petitions for more localized issues, such as those relating to Notre Dame-specific policies, are sometimes found in Google Docs. These petitions typically have an accompanying letter and Google Form for signatures. These varying formats, as well as their use in social media campaigns, make petitions fairly flexible and far-reaching.
While that might sound great, it doesn’t mean anything if petitions aren’t functional. In other words, if they do not actually create change. So, can petitions make a difference?
By now, many people are familiar with the events relating to George Floyd’s death, as well as the petitions associated with the aftermath. However, there also seems to be a curiously strong correlation between these petitions and the government response; many are not aware of this relationship. On Aug. 19, the change.org petition to achieve justice for Floyd had amassed over 19,600,000 signatures. The signature count is still rising. When the petition was originally created, it described how its goal was to have the officers involved in Floyd’s death fired with charges filed immediately.
After the creation of the petition, it began amassing signatures. Not long after, Derek Chauvin, one of the officers responsible for Floyd’s death, was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Certainly, the petition did not directly create this outcome. However, creating a public display of widespread support for that specific result certainly did not decrease the chances of that specific outcome occurring. In fact, other petitions, including a change.org petition and a petitions.whitehouse.gov petition, amassed over three million signatures and 150,000 signatures respectively when they asked to raise the third-degree murder charge to second-degree murder. After public pressure, including pressure from the petitions, Chauvin’s murder charge was, in fact, increased to second-degree murder. Meanwhile, the other three officers involved in Floyd’s death also received charges. The strong association between the creation of petitions and the community’s response indicates there is at least the possibility that petitions are impacting the decisions of our leaders.
By now, I think many people have heard at least someone question the effectiveness of petitions. While simply signing your name on a document or adding your email to a virtual list may seem like a futile way to fight for change, the timeline of the Floyd petitions and events indicate that petitions have the potential to make a positive impact. At the very least, petitions are not likely to hurt your cause. So take the time. Sign the petition. It’s worth the two extra minutes.
Libby Messman is a sophomore in Pasquerilla West hall majoring in political science and philosophy. She is a member of BridgeND, a multi-partisan political club committed to bridging the partisan divide through respectful and productive discourse. BridgeND meets weekly on Mondays at 5 p.m. You can contact the club at [email protected] or learn more at bit.ly/bridgendsignup
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.