Do Popular Online Petitions Generate Effective Social Change in Australia?

The rapid uptake of mobile phones, digital television, and the internet have all created opportunities for increased participation and expression in political processes in Australia. These non-traditional modes of individualised participation offer new ways for individuals and groups to express political opinions and engage in the political process (Häyhtiö & Rinne, 2008). One such form of non-traditional participation in governance is the use of online petitions. Although petition signing has never been complicated offline, the internet has made it simpler for people to find and engage with the process. Placing a petition online also makes it easier to arrange campaigns, spread the word and a signing a petition can now be achieved with the simple click of a button. (Panagiotopoulos & Elliman, 2012) Online petitions are a form of low-cost, low-risk online activism and due to their simplistic nature have subsequently been referred to as slacktivism. This paper argues online petitions as a form of social activism (political engagement) in Australia. It examines the famous Australian “sack Alan Jones” online petition and determines whether slacktivism in the form of online petitioning can meaningfully contribute to generating effective social change in Australia.

Petitions

Panagiotopoulos and Elliman (2012) suggest petitioning is quite straightforward. A group of citizens places an issue before a governing body or authority asking it to “undertake or impede certain actions or public policies”. The amount of public support behind the request is indicated by the number of signatories to the petition. The act of petitioning can be traced back to pre-modern Imperial China where petitions were sent to an Office of Transmission and court secretaries would read them aloud to the emperor (Brook, 1998). The widespread adaptation of the Web 2.0 throughout society has significantly transformed the petitioning process. Web 2.0 is a termed coined by Tim O’Reilly in 2004 to refer to web-based services that allow for participation, collaboration and interactivity (Boler, 2008; O’Reilly, 2005). Web 2.0 functionalities’ overcome key limitations of Web 1.0, potentially making it easier for individuals to participate in traditional and non-traditional acts of political participation (Macnamara & Kenning, 2014). The internet, and more specifically Web 2.0 “centralises and accelerates the process of petitioning while offering a wide range of support mechanisms”. Petitioning on centrally visible websites decreases the laborious organisation of massive dissemination activities by groups of dedicated volunteers. “This enables individuals to create their own petitions and promote them through conventional internet tools such as mailing lists, social networking or newsletters” (Panagiotopoulos & Elliman, (2012).

Slacktivism

The relative ease of online petitioning enabled by Web 2.0 has assisted in creating a paradigm where activists can use the internet to engage in cost-effective and efficient social activism. However, online activism, including petition signing, has attracted substantial criticism for being “slacktivism” (Lee & Hsieh, 2013). The term slacktivism comes from joining together the words slacker and activism. It has been defined as “low-risk, low-cost activity via social media whose purpose is to raise awareness, produce change, or grant satisfaction to the person engaged in the activity” (Rotman, et. al., 2011). Examples of slacktivism include engaging with social-issue related posts on social media, changing one’s social media profile picture to a rainbow flag to promote LBGTIQ acceptance (see figure 1.) and as mentioned above, signing online petitions. Slacktivism on social media has proven to be a useful tool in distributing

information that creates and enhances awareness surrounding social issues (Rotman, et. al., 2011). Criticism of slacktivism stems from the perception that it creates no significant impact on social change and that there is a perceived lack of willingness from slacktivism participants to devote significant effort to enact meaningful change (Lee & Hsieh, 2013; Kristofferson, et. al. 2014). Young people, in particular, have been accused of engaging in slacktivism, while at the same time being apathetic and disengaging with politics. A (2010) study from Australia found that young people remain interested in social and political issues and 37% of young people surveyed resorted to petitioning as an alternative method for engaging with a traditional political system that is unresponsive to their needs and interests (Harris, et. al., 2010). This suggests that slacktivism provides an avenue of political expression for people who feel unrecognised in Australia’s current political system. This paper defines Australian online participation in civic life, including participating in online petitions, as being a form of slacktivism. It acknowledges the increasing body of studies reporting positive normative outcomes from the emergence of slacktivism (Sheppard, 2015).

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Figure 1: LGBTIQ support: Edward Jurkiewicz Facebook

Petitioning Platforms in Australia

GetUp! is one of Australia’s largest online petitioning communities (GetUp!, 2016). Since its birth in 2005 GetUp! membership has reached a scale unmatched by many other groups in Australian civic life, with over one 600,00 Australian members (Sheppard, 2015). The organisation describes itself as an “independent, grassroots, community advocacy organisation that seeks to build a more progressive Australia and hold politicians to account” (GetUp!, 2016). Häyhtiö & Rinne (2008) define GetUp! as a liberal website that uses the internet for both individually focused conversation and information aggregation functions through targeted email, online petition campaigns, and blogging. This organisation model differs from most other liberal sites in two ways. First, GetUp! has a broader movement orientation that is akin to highly organised, direct action campaigns undertaken at the grassroots, rather than most other liberal sites that employ a top-down e-governance structure which enables citizens to contact decision-makers (Häyhtiö & Rinne, 2008). Second, the GetUp! campaigns tend to occur outside of traditional political structures, instead of within them, as is the case with traditional forms of liberal democratic participation The growing rate of participation in online petitions has provided an opportunity for Australians, specifically traditionally under-represented groups of Australia to engage in political slacktivism. The total number of people who have contributed to GetUp! Petitions constitute a considerable portion of the Australian population (Sheppard, 2015).

Change.org is the global equivalent of Australia’s GetUp! It provides an interactive multimedia web platform that allows ordinary citizens to engage in political activism.  Since the site was launched by Stanford University student Ben Rattray in 2007 it has grown to host over 120 million users and now spans 196 countries. Change.org is a for-profit organisation, however, the site’s mission statement states that its profits are used to expand the business and in turn, help it create greater social change. Change.org has previously received criticism for encouraging the negative aspects of slacktivism. It is also viewed as a necessary game adapter to activism in the convergent media environment (Harvey, 2013).

The Case of Alan Jones

This paper will examine social activism performed on the Change.org platform in order to determine whether engaging in slacktivism on these online petitioning platforms has contributed to the creation of effective social change in Australia. The case is a 2012 Change.org petition that was created during the ‘Destroy the Joint’ movement in Australia. Mclean et. al. (2103) reported the ‘Destroy the Joint’ activism campaign was created on social media in response to controversial statements made by conservative radio broadcaster Alan Jones. On the 22nd of September 2012, veteran radio broadcaster Alan Jones stood before the crowd gathered at the Sydney University Liberal Club Presidents dinner and presented an embittered speech in which he suggested that women, and in particular the then Prime Minster Julia Gillard are “Destroying the Joint”. The speech was recorded and published by News Ltd journalist Jonathan Marshal and Mr. Jones’ comments were met by a wave of backlash from the Australian public, including former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who described Jones’ comments as “lowest of the low” (Marshall, 2012; Mclean & Maalsen, 2013). Melbourne reconstructive surgeon Jill Tomlinson spontaneously launched the ‘Destroy the Joint’ social media campaign in the days succeeding Jones’ comments. A Facebook page, Twitter hashtag (#destroythejoint) and an online petition called for Jones to be held to account for his inflammatory remarks (Mclean & Maalsen, 2013).  The change.org petition in particular called for advertisers to cease various commercial relationships with Jones’ 2GB radio station and for Jones to be removed from his position as morning broadcaster at 2GB. The petition gained considerable support and grew to become the largest online petition in Australia’s history with over 115,000 signatures (Caro, 2013).  The campaign was wildly successful in the short-term. Jones provided an apology for his actions, many 2GB sponsors withdrew support for the controversial host and all advertising was temporarily suspended on Jones’ 2GB program, costing the radio station between AUD 1 million and AUD 1.5 million (Tomlinson, 2012; YouTube, 2012; Crikey, 2012; McLean, et.al., 2012). Advertising returned to Jones’ program shortly after the campaign and Destroy the Joint announced the end of their campaign against 2GB, claiming it was successful due to the majority of Jones’ national advertisers abandoning his program (Tomlinson, 2012).

The long-term effects of the Destroy the Joint movement, in particular, the change.org petition, have been unsuccessful. As mentioned above the change.org petition was at the time the largest online petition in Australian history with over 115,000 signatures. This petition was a failure for numerous reasons. First, as of June 2016, Alan Jones is still the host of the 2GB morning radio program (2GB, 2016). The largest online petition in Australian history did not sufficiently convince his employers, or the Australian government, to cease association with Jones over his “destroying the joint’ and “died of shame” remarks. This can be considered a failure because the petition did not achieve its objective of Jones being fired from 2GB. Second, the change.org petition states “This campaign has been an overwhelming success: no major sponsors have returned to Alan Jones’ show” (Change.org, 2016). This statement is factually incorrect. On October 15, 2012- less than three weeks after the Sydney University Liberal Club Presidents dinner speech, executive chairman of the Macquarie Radio Network, Russell Tate confirmed to the Sydney Morning Herald that major sponsors would be returning to air that morning (Davey, 2012).  In the time since Tate’s 2012 comments 2GB has managed to successfully gain, and regain, vast support from commercial sponsors. For example, on the 30th of May 2016 Alan Jones breakfast program aired commercials from a range of major sponsors including, but not limited to, business Insurer, NRMA; luxury car dealership, Audi Five Dock; international travel company, Expedia, car maker, Kia, and the New South Wales Government (The Alan Jones Breakfast Show, 2016). This level of commercial support shows that the ‘Sack Alan Jones’ Change.org petition was unable to persuade potential sponsors to boycott Jones’ program in the long-term.

Despite the widespread public condemnation and subsequent initial fallout resulting from Jones’ (2012) remarks evidenced in the change.org petition, his 2GB program has also managed to regain endorsement from the both New South Wales and Australian governments. NSW government sponsored commercials were withdrawn from Jones’ 2GB program during the initial stages of the Destroy the Joint movement, however, the withdrawal was not everlasting (Mclean & Maalsen, 2013).  On the 30th of May, 2016 a commercial from the NSW Government fire and rescue department was aired during The Alan Jones Breakfast Show (The Alan Jones Breakfast Show, 2016). This demonstrates a willingness from the NSW government to engage in a commercial relationship with 2GB, and Alan Jones.

Furthermore, Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull appeared on Jones’ 2GB program on May 25th, 2016, to discuss the upcoming federal election (The Alan Jones Breakfast Show, 2016). Prime Minster Turnbull was publicly critical of Jones’ during the initial stages of the destroy the joint campaign, claiming that Jones’ comments, regarding Julia Gillard, were “cruel and offensive” (Turnbull, 2012). Prime Minister Turnbull’s appearance on Jones’s 2GB program demonstrates the Australian Government’s unwillingness adhere to the change.org petition recommendation for organisations to cease commercial association with Jones. These examples provide evidence of both the NSW and Australian Federal Government’s willingness to support Jones’s continued employment and a willingness to maintain a commercial relationship with Alan Jones, despite initial condemnation of his actions by both government officials and the 115,000 change.org petition signers.

Conclusion

By ignoring the change.org petition and continuing to commercially associate with Jones in the long term, the NSW government, Australian governments, and 2GB station sponsors have assisted in allowing Alan Jones to continue operating, thus denying the potential for effective long-term social change to occur. ‘Destroy the Joint’ and creators of the change.org “sack Alan jones” petition have assisted to deny effective social change on this issue by engaging in the negative aspects of slacktivism as defined by Rotman, et. al. (2011). The gratification gained from achieving short-term campaign objectives, including the temporary suspension of advertisements from Alan Jones’ 2GB program and the withdrawal of commercial support by some sponsors, led change.org petitioners to declare victory and deter them from continuing to peruse the major goals of the campaign in the long-term- including Alan jones losing his job and the withdrawal of commercial sponsorship for his program. This suggests that engaging in slacktivism as a form of activism can be detrimental to long-term campaign objectives if campaigners allow the fulfilment of short-term goals to create complacency in participants and discourage them from creating existing social change. Social movements, like every other aspect of life, have become increasingly reliant on the internet for networking, information sharing, and coalition building. (Petray, 2011). Although some of the subsequent fallout resulting from the change.org petition was short-lived, this does not negate the positive impacts of social media campaigns, in particular, the ‘Destroy the Joint’ campaign. The “sack Alan Jones” change.org online petition was successful in condemning the actions of Mr. Jones as well as subsequently assisting Destroy the Joint to create an online public discourse about the treatment of women in Australia. Although the “sack Alan Jones” petition failed to create effective social change by removing Alan Jones’ commercial endorsements and from his job at 2GB, the campaign was not a complete failure as it did assist Destroy the Joint to facilitate a debate which may lead to the creation of effective social change in the future.

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