When to Bring a Petition to a Trump-Fight
Where online petitions help marshal an army of protesters or shift the media narrative, they will be more relevant and valuable than ever before.
It is a little ironic that the Trump administration has continued to maintain the We The People platform on Whitehouse.gov. We The People is a holdover from the Obama administration’s Open Government Initiative, which has itself been scrubbed from Whitehouse.gov. Government transparency is, to put it mildly, not a priority for the Trump administration. The top petition on the site right now, with over 770,000 signatures, calls on Donald Trump to immediately release his full tax returns. The White House is supposed to formally respond to any petition that receives over 100,000 signatures, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the President or his administration to be open and transparent on this one.*
If there has been one silver lining to these first few weeks of the Trump administration, it has been the sudden resurgence of mass protests. Donald Trump’s behavior has galvanized citizens to express their outrage through unifying collective actions. We are witnessing the emergence of strong new political organizations, like Indivisible and Sleeping Giants, and for once the American public does not seem content to sit back and wait for the next election to get involved in politics. As the Pod Save America guys recently put it, “protest is the new brunch.” People are ready to act. They are showing up. They want to make a difference.
What role should digital petitions play in the #resistance? Should we finally discard them and focus on better outlets for expression? When are they valuable, and when are they a distraction?
There’s a key point from my new book, Analytic Activism: Digital Listening and the New Political Strategy, that I think is relevant to this question:
A petition can be many different things. It can be a demonstration of public support for a proposed course of action […] It can be a membership sign-up form […] It can be a media signal, a marker of newsworthiness that launches an individual story or cause into the limelight. (page 59)
When it comes to the efficacy of digital petitions, I think it’s helpful to consider them from three angles: (1) as a direct pressure tactic, (2) as a recruitment device, and (3) as an indirect/lateral pressure tactic.
We tend to consider petitions (and every other protest tactic) solely as direct pressure tactics. Hence we’re treated to tedious arguments that massive marches are “ineffective” because rural Trump voters don’t care. And indeed, as a recent study by Pew Research revealed, even during the Obama administration, We The People petitions were rarely effective in changing the administration’s position. But that’s too narrow of a definition. No single tactic is going to be enough to overcome the threats posed by the Trump administration.
In a recent article on Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, Daniel Carpenter highlights the valuable role that petitions have played throughout history in larger campaigns for social change. “Signing a petition is a social act,” he writes, “and gives organizers your name and contact information. Carpenter has studied petitions that date back to the 1800s and found that, even when they did not directly achieve their goals, they were often central to building the foundation for ongoing, powerful efforts.
My own research on digital petitioning has likewise shown that that online petitions are a particularly valuable type of digital political tactic, because they allow for repeated interactions between the petition-signer, the petition host, and potentially the petition-creator (I’ll elaborate on that “potentially” point below). If 1,000 people retweet your killer Trump burn, you have no easy means of engaging them again. If 1,000 people like your Facebook page, Facebook will generously let you pay to promote future messages in their newsfeeds. If those same 1,000 people sign your Change.org petition, you can use the site to send them a follow-up message.
Petitions can also be valuable tools for creating indirect political pressure, particularly in the fractured, fractious media environment that we currently inhabit. That’s because petitions can act as a signaling device for journalists or other political actors, who in turn then produce their own leverage on the petition’s target.
Let’s take that giant Trump taxes petition on We The People as an example.
Viewed as a direct pressure tactic, it’s pretty underwhelming. How many petition signatures do we think it will really take to get Donald Trump to release his tax returns? Does anyone really believe that he has stonewalled this long simply because he didn’t realize there was a public demand for them? Trump is not going to release them of his own volition. He has ignored pointed questions and outraged protests about this for over a year and a half. An online petition is not going to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
What about as a recruitment device? This is the largest White House petition EVER. That’s got to help build a movement to hold the guy accountable, right? Sadly, no. When you sign a White House petition, your email address only becomes visible to the White House. It does not become visible to the person who launched the petition. WeThePeople allows for direct interaction between the government and its citizens, but it does not allow citizen-to-citizen interaction. As I discuss in my book (and previously discussed in a post for techPresident), the central contradiction of the White House petition site has always been that it is both the target of and the venue for citizen petitions. All of the functionality that could support activist recruitment and movement-building has been stripped from the site. It dampens, rather than amplifies, social movement organizing. From a recruitment perspective, the petitioners would have been much better off launching their petition at Change.org or MoveOn Petitions. Both sites include some functionality to support follow-up messages to petition-signers.
But then there’s our third category, as an indirect/lateral pressure tactic. One of the problems for journalists covering Trump’s tax returns is that it can be hard to find a news hook to make the story relevant. Structurally, his tax problem has become a bit like climate change: It is as dangerous this week as it was last week, and will continue to be next week as well. After you’ve written one massive expose about the problem, there aren’t a bunch of natural hooks that invite an update on the story. Problems of this sort (what I call “quiet crises”) tend to vanish from the media agenda unless something dramatic makes them timely and relevant.
A record-setting petition on Whitehouse.gov provides a useful media hook. It provides a follow-up question in interviews and press conferences (Spicer/Conway/Trump: “I don’t think anyone cares about this issue except for the media.” Journalist reply: “Well, over 770,000 people have signed a petition on your own platform, more than any petition ever, calling on the president to release. And the platform guarantees a governmental response. When will the administration be issuing its response?”)
For a normal president, in normal times, the direct pressure would be more valuable than the indirect pressure. Normal presidents worry about things like public opinion and public outrage, and petitions can serve as a quantitative indicator of public demand.
Donald Trump is not a normal president, and these are not normal times. He watches CNN obsessively. He finds out how he is doing from Joe Scarborough. There has never been a President so attuned to how political media treat him and discuss him. That creates potential power. That’s leverage begging to be exploited.**
So, to summarize, when should we bring a petition to a Trump-fight? Let me suggest the following:
- Petitions can serve as valuable recruitment devices for ongoing protest movements and organizations. But some petition sites amplify that recruitment function and others dampen it. A MoveOn petition or a Change.org petition will provide different access and support to organizers. It’s time to familiarize ourselves with the structure and functionality of these large social petition sites. (Nota bene: Chapter 3 of my book provides a deep dive into these issues. And it has a couple jokes too!)
- The value of many petitions is going to be found in the indirect/lateral pressure they create as media objects. The White House site, in particular, should probably only be used as a media signaling device. With the Trump administration abandoning the Obama admin’s commitment to open government, it’s simply toothless as a direct pressure device, and it has never been any good as a recruitment device.
- Campaigns aimed at President Trump need to think hard and experiment with indirect/lateral pressure tactics. Donald Trump is not a normal politician. The types of pressure that could effectively move an Obama, a Bush, a Clinton, or a Reagan may not work on him. (Mass protest in the streets? Terrible public approval ratings? “FAKE NEWS!”) But he’s also, personally, easily rattled unlike any president before him. The man is obsessed with crowd size and with the fear that people will view him as an abject failure. That’s both a problem and an opportunity.
The direct pressure of online petitions won’t amount to much in the coming years of Trump-fights. But where online petitions help marshal an army of protesters or help to contest and shift the media narrative, they will be more relevant and valuable than ever before.
*KellyAnne Conway has dismissively responded that “...he’s not going to release his tax returns. We litigated this all through the election. People didn’t care. They voted for him.” It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will offer any of the formal, written responses that the Obama administration provided.
**To be clear, I’m not suggesting that enough CNN coverage will convince him to release his tax returns. I’m suggesting that bad media coverage puts him off balance and leads him to make strategic errors. And the more he overreacts and throws tantrums, the stronger the #resistance gets.