E-petitions doomed from the outset

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Alan Turing was born in 1912 and hearlded as the father of modern computing

From forcing Iain Duncan Smith to live on £53 a week to getting Alan Turing commemorated on £10 notes, e-petitions have become a feature of British democracy. But what are the hallmarks of a successful campaign? A group of researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute have been finding out.

The team, led by Scott Hale, examined the petitions created on the No 10 Downing Street between 2 February 2009 and 11 March 2011, when the site was closed by the incoming coalition government.

The researchers wanted to understand whether factors such as which day of the week a petition was launched, or whether its subject matter influenced its chances of success.

But success is, it transpires, something of a relative term when it comes to e-petitions. Of the more than 8,200 petitions the teams monitored, fewer than six percent racked up more than 500 signatures – a far cry from the 100,000 needed to get the issue raised in Parliament.

What's more, the number of signatures garnered in the first 24 hours proved to be a remarkably prescient way of predicting how many more it would get over the following 12 months. Most petitions attracted a flurry of signatures at the outset, but stopped attracting new ones after two months.

The key to creating a successful e-petition seemed to be that the author needed to have an active circle of contacts, capable of creating enough interest in the short term to build enough momentum, the researchers said.

“At some point, if the petition is successful, then the number of followers will reach ‘critical mass’ and attention to the mobilisation will become widespread, breaking out of the petitioner’s social network and gain more general social media exposure,” they wrote.

So rather than being a way for Britons to get their voice heard on issues that matter to them, e-petitions are akin to a popularity contest.

Meanwhile, and perhaps unsurprisingly, some issues garnered more interest than others: health and environment petitions generated more interest than those on government, politics and public administration.

The work was published on the ArXiv pre-publication service.

04 Apr 2013

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