Anatomy of Clicktivism

What makes a Change.org petition click?


What is a Change.org petition?

In the past decade, activism has undergone a sea change – in many cases, protest venues are shifting from physical to www, with platforms like Change.org helping people drum up support from fellow netizens. And since it’s on the internet, petitions for change can be signed pretty much from anywhere for issues all over the globe. The website now boasts of a user base of 100 million people across 196 countries.

Change.org’s working model is simple: anyone can start a petition on anything by spelling out the issue and creating ‘targets’ – the government (or company) officials who have the power to take decisions about the problem. For instance, one of the most popular petitions on the site requests Prime Minister Theresa May and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (the targets) to free Nazanin Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian who was detained by the Tehran government on “security grounds” when she went home for a holiday with her two-year-old daughter. The petition, started by Nazanin’s husband, now has over 800,000 people backing it.

Do these petitions actually work?

According to a University of Washington study on Change.org, only a measly 1% of the petitions started on the website are actually marked victorious. Contrary to this find, a spokesperson for Change.org told The New York Times that one petition is marked victorious every hour worldwide. But a victory could mean anything at all – once you start your petition, you have the option to ‘declare victory’ on your campaign even if you receive a single signature. You can also stretch your goals, extend deadlines and so on.

Besides, getting a large volume of signatures doesn’t necessarily change anything – a petition for the US electoral college to vote Hillary Clinton instead of Donald Trump as president garnered about 4.9 million signatories – the largest till date – but didn’t affect the outcome of the vote.

It swings the other way too – a petition to allow coal to be mined from the sea in Hartlepool succeeded with less than 300 people backing it. However, the number of signatures gathered becomes a significant point for activists campaigning for an issue. Picking up on trending Change.org petitions has become a practice in the media: for instance, Nazanin’s story was picked up by The Guardian, while another petition to close shops on boxing day was picked up by The Daily Telegraph.


What racks up the signatures?

An analysis of about 1,020 of the most popular petitions on the website (most number of signatures) from the UK reveals that certain keywords like 'people', 'children' and 'animal' are oft-repeated. The average number of signatures per petition is about 28,000. Here's a breakdown of the 12 most popular petitions in the UK:

Click on the data points for more information on the petition

Click image below to access petition


Analysis shows that a majority of the images in the top 10 most popular petitions are either pictures of people or animals. For instance, among the top 12 petitions above, seven of them show people's faces, while two show animals.

As many as 272 petitions (26%) in the original sample also contained links to websites dedicated to the cause, Facebook groups/pages or news articles. These links bolster the argument made in the petition. There are also links that collect donations for petitions: one of them asks you to text a certain number if you wish to donate to the fund.

Successful petitions also have their spin-offs. The 'tampon tax' petition above was started by activist Laura Coryton. After a successful campaign, she is now running another Change.org campaign to provide tampons to the homeless -- this now has over 67,300 signatures.

But numbers are something to be very wary about in Change.org. The same petition can run in several countries and languages, but every signature, be it in the UK or India, counts towards the same total. This means that if you want more signatures quickly, you can run your campaign across countries and inflate your support base numbers. Malala's petition for girls' education, for instance, crossed over a million signatures, but the campaign ran across 10 countries.

Going back to the keywords -- the most common term that recurs in petitions is the word 'people': 44% of the petitions in the sample contained the term, while about 36% contained the term ‘time’. The ‘people’ related petitions tackled serious issues like food wastage, the crisis in Syria and animal cruelty. While 50% of the top petitions called for justice for individuals or animals who had been wronged in some way, the other half were of a general nature -- like the petition calling on the EU to prosecute shell companies in the light of the Panama Papers.

Frequency of the top 100 keywords

But it's not enough to just know the density of each keyword. We need to find out how many petitions a certain set of keywords recurs and what combinations are used.The following visualisation explores what keywords are most commonly used together in the sample. Simply mouse-over a component to see what % of petitions use those particular words:

The path to popularity


Target Practice

Another interesting aspect of petitions are the people who the petition is aimed at. These targets can be anyone, from the local councillor to the Prime Minister. And the sample shows that there is a mix of both. Among the 12 most popular petitions, none of them are aimed at local government bodies, but this is hardly surprising given that the more far-reaching the issue, the more signatures it gets, while local issues are far more prone to get signatures only from that particular area's residents.

Here's what the above chart tells us: We find that there are more number of petitions aimed at the local governing body and authorities (council/councillor etc) than at higher officials like MPs and the Prime Minister. This means that a large number of petitions are also calling for action at the local level.


(Failed) Experiment in Changing.org

This journalist tried to start a petition, but it fizzled out even before it started. The Change.org petition, aimed at London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Prime Minister Theresa May, called for a cap on student rents in London. It had a picture from a previous student protest, and used keywords like 'economy', 'government' and 'housing'.

The way Change.org works is as follows: you need to get at least five signatures before other Change.org users can see your petitions and back them. This effectively means that you need to send the petition link to people who would be ready to back you. And because of the holidays, only two people backed the petition (the person who created the petition automatically backs the petition). However, even with these three signatures, the campaign could still be marked 'successful'. This shows that the 'success' factor on the platform is pretty much rubbish when it comes to measuring impact and even if one had the numbers for 'successful' campaigns, it wouldn't amount to much accuracy.


It all boils down to justice and rights

As we saw in the sample, half of the most popular petitions in the United Kingdom were about getting justice for a person or animal -- and this entity need not even be in the UK: The 'Save Asia Bibi'campaign is about a woman in Pakistan, while the Save Aleppo campaign urges world leaders to take action in Syria. Several campaigns have gone on to make an impact, but it is difficult to gauge the effectiveness of these campaigns because it cannot be concluded that change was brought about wholly as a result of a campaign alone. And since Change.org is vey opaque about its data (The organisation did not reply to repeated attempts to reach it), it is even more difficult to find out how many campaigns were started, how many succeeded and how many failed.

One can conclude that though the platform may not be the best way of accurately determining the impact of internet activism, it serves as a repository of issues that affect people today, much like Twitter and Facebook.