We the People’s Hits and Misses

The White House's petition site offers advocacy groups a useful tool

In recent months, the White House’s “We the People” petition site has been in the center of numerous mainstream media debates, drawing signatures by the 10s of thousands and eliciting direct responses from the president. Yet, as the White House petition popularity grows, so do the complications of having to answer difficult and sometimes bizarre questions, leaving some to wonder: Is digital advocacy really possible at government’s highest levels?

Introduced in 2011, the petitions are part of the Obama administration’s open government initiative. Anyone can create a petition, and once it crosses the threshold of 25,000 signatures within 30 days, the White House is obligated to respond in some way.

The depth of response has varied from vague to a video response from President Obama after a gun control petition inspired by the Newtown school shooting compiled close to 200,000 signatures in just days. Many of the site’s petitions range from the serious (Sandy Hook gun control) to the trivial (a petition to ban CNN’s Piers Morgan garnered over 100,000 signatures and a response from press secretary Jay Carney) to the nearly implausible (a petition to build a working replica spacecraft of the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek). But regardless how peculiar, many in Washington see the site as a positive step in digital advocacy.

“This is just another tool in the toolbox for advocacy groups, not a silver bullet,” said Michael Weinberg, staff attorney for Public Knowledge, an open Internet advocacy group based in Washington. “I think that the White House should be given credit though. They’re on the hook with their responses to these petitions, and they’re essentially using this as a mechanism to tell the public, ‘We acknowledge that a critical number of citizens care about an issue.’”

One petitioner, an engineer who goes by ‘BTE-Dan,’ believes petitions (like his to build the Enterprise) might be colorful but could have a positive impact. “Building the Enterprise is all about inspiring people, just like going to the moon was an inspirational activity. And yes, inspiring young Americans is an important part of this,” he told Adweek via email.

In an era where it’s hard to measure the impact of an online signature, the petitions are a new and imperfect system where petitions to deport foreigners and to allow states to secede from the union can make for difficult conversations.

Yet, it is one where online activism isn’t shipped off to a black hole or attached with a plea to donate money. Weinberg noted, however, that the success or failure of We the People rests in the White House’s hands now: “If, over time, the answers evolve into those that aren’t substantive, then it becomes a lesser thing. Its usefulness is now tied to the level of the administration’s response.”