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Questions Raised by White House “We The People” Online Petition Process

–Guest post by Luis Hestres, Doctoral student at American University.

Petitioning the government for policy changes is a practice as old as the republic, and doing so online is a practice as old as the Web, if not the Internet itself. But last Thursday, the White House announced a new initiative that could potentially up-end the process by which citizens petition their government online.

This new White House initiative, called “We the People,” will allow citizens to create petitions online, gather support for them, and receive a guaranteed official response if they meet a certain threshold.  The initiative is about “giving Americans a direct line to the White House on the issues and concerns that matter most to them,” President Obama said in a statement.

Take a look below at the official White House YouTube explainer on the initiative and the overview excerpted from the official announcement.


Create or Sign a Petition

Anyone 13 or older can create or sign a petition on asking the Obama Administration to take action on a range of important issues facing our country. To get started you’ll need to create an account and verify your email address. Start thinking about the issues that matter to you, what you would like the Obama Administration to do to address the important challenges facing our country, and who you’ll ask to join you.


Build Support and Gather Signatures

Creating or signing a petition is just the first step. It’s up to you to build support for a petition and gather even more signatures. Use email, Facebook, Twitter and word of mouth to tell your friends, family and coworkers about the petitions you care about.


The White House Reviews and Responds

If a petition meets the signature threshold, it will be reviewed by the Administration and an official response will be issued. And we’ll make sure that the petition is sent to the appropriate policy makers in the Administration.

The initial threshold to get a response from the Administration is 5,000 signatures. There seems to be wide agreement across the academic literature about the Internet’s power to enable greater political participation by expanding access to information, enabling discussion and facilitating grassroots political mobilization. But the question is whether this new White House initiative is about participation or about the potential to actually influence policy.

If it’s the former, “We the People” seems more like a formalization of a process that is already happening every day: citizens petitioning the government online, mostly through NGOs of various ideological stripes. The difference is that in this instance, the signatures are channeled directly through the White House, and there’s a guaranteed official response if the 5,000 signatures threshold is met. Aside from that, it seems like just another channel for online petitions.

However, the initiative dangles the promise of actual influence on policy, and on this ground there are more questions than self-evident answers. Will this new framework create the expectation that policy action will be taken if petitions reach a certain level of support? Or will it simply allow this or future administrations to keep conducting policy as before — including the already-existing vehicles for petitioning the government such as the federal rule making process — while claiming that everyone’s voice has been heard and accruing the political benefits of that claim?

Here’s a hypothetical: A conservative group launches a petition to repeal a rule that keeps the amount of mercury in our drinking water below a certain level. A green group launches a counter-petition supporting the rule — or if anything, demanding it be strengthened. The conservative petition gathers 100,000 signatures, while the green one gathers 50,000.

Can the conservative group reasonably expect the current administration to turn its back on its green allies because the conservative petition gathered 50,000 more signatures than the green one? And if they can’t, what has the whole exercise amounted to beyond one of “participation” in which everyone’s voice was “heard” but nothing in the policy outcome went differently than it otherwise would have absent “We the People”?  

Since the question of online political impact, as opposed to simply participation, will be the focus of my research as a student in  American University’s doctoral program in Communication, this dichotomy of participation vs. impact as it relates to “We the People” is one I will be looking at closely and blogging about here at Big Think.

“We the People” raises many other questions as well. Will the data collected through these petitions be publicly available, particularly to researchers? How will this initiative impact the economic models of companies like Care2 or that rely on petitions (some user-generated) for their email list-building businesses? How will NGOs change their strategies and tactics to take advantage of this new tool?

Since “We the People hasn’t even been launched yet, it’s natural that we have more questions than answers – but it’s never too early to be asking questions.

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–LUIS HESTRES is a Doctoral student at American University’s School of Communication. Before joining SOC’s PhD program, Luis worked as an online organizer at various nonprofits and was most recently the Internet and Communications Manager at the 1Sky climate campaign. Luis holds an MA in Communication, Culture and Technology program and an MFA in Film and Media Arts.

See also:

Fisher, D., & Boekkooi, M. (2010). Mobilizing Friends and Strangers. Information, Communication and Society, 13(2), 193-208. [Abstract]

Van Laer, J., & Van Aelst, P. (2010). Internet and Social Movement Repetoires. Information, Communication & Society, 13(8), 1146-1171. [PDF]

    de Zúñiga, H. G., Veenstra, A., Vraga, E., & Shah, D. (2010). Digital democracy: Reimagining pathways to political participation. Journal of Information Technology & Politics, 7(1), 36-51. [PDF]


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