Do social media activism and signing petitions work?


Leer en español: ¿Funciona el activismo en las redes sociales o la firma de peticiones?

Signing a petition has been associated with what the United Nations has dubbed ‘slacktivism.’ With petitions becoming more prevalent in response to current issues, some signers point out the true impact that signing a petition can have. (Illustration by Ben Daniel)

Petitions have been around for hundreds of years. However, since the dawn of the internet age and social media, petitions have been lumped into what is known as “slacktivism,” a combination of the words “slack” and “activism.”

According to the website Nonprofit Hub, the United Nations has defined ‘slacktivism’ as people supporting a cause by doing actions but who are not “truly engaged or devoted to making a change.” 

This begs the question of whether the simple act of typing in a name for an online petition is slacktivism or a step towards true change. 

Rosemary Clark-Parsons, the associate director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center on Digital Culture and Society, reported to CNN that research shows people are less likely to participate in activism that requires a high level of commitment.

However, she added that these simple signatures help organizers of petitions better visualize who their passive supporters may be.

This helps organizers and movement leaders encourage passive allies into becoming active allies and to “join the ranks of supporters who are actively fighting alongside you for the cause,” Clark-Parsons told CNN.

In a 2019 article in the Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace researchers showed general positive feelings come after signing a petition and those feelings “may propel (petition signers) toward future collective action.”

BYU student Stephanie Morales signed a recent petition made by other BYU students asking to make a race and ethnicity class be a GE requirement. She said although not being entirely sure if her signature will help, she recognizes its effect in other positive ways.

“It helps raise awareness by sharing a petition and having friends see that the issue is real and is something people care about,” she said. 

There has been no announcement about a race and ethnicity class becoming a GE requirement. However, BYU announced shortly after the petition was made that a diverse committee of staff was formed to examine race and inequality

While there was no direct reference from BYU on the influence of this petition on their announcement, BYU did make a policy change after reviewing information from a petition made in 2016 about sexual assault on campus.

Statements and thousands of responses from the petition were reviewed by an advisory council created by President Kevin J Worthen that eventually brought forward a report six months after the petition was made on a new policy change on the campus’s response to sexual assault

Madi Barney, the creator of the petition, said in an interview with the Daily Universe that her petition was “not the only way to raise awareness or help survivors” but also a way to take action when it comes to helping friends who have been sexually assaulted. 

Beyond the BYU sphere, a campaign dubbed “Trafficking Hub” has recently sparked the internet’s interest as social media has taken the reigns in sharing its informative video about Pornhub and its association with sex trafficking. 

BYU Idaho student Faith Bellum signed a petition that supported Trafficking Hub after seeing a friend’s Instagram post about it, but the petition was taken down after a few weeks.

She said it was scary to see it be taken down despite the latest news on child and sex trafficking. “That just shows me there are some very powerful people doing some very horrible things and these types of movements are needed more than ever.”

As of July 16, a new petition from Trafficking Hub on is live and has already gained over one million signatures. 

No changes from Pornhub have been made, but the signature count continues to rise as the campaign becomes more public.  

A simple signature for a big issue, such as sex trafficking, may seem like a small means of support, however, research done by professors at the University of Michigan Department of Communication Studies shows that small acts of social media activism “could translate to a large impact on support for social causes at the population level.”

Bellum feels that petitions are a great way to have voices be heard in a world of so many opinions. 

“You can know you’re doing at least something to stand up for the fights you believe in,” she said. 

Morales can understand people who fall into slacktivism, but she points out that many people, especially college students, do not have the financial means to donate towards causes and that petitions are just one of many great ways to support.

“There are many other ways to participate that don’t require money,” she said. “So I do think every person is responsible for identifying their resources and deciding what they can afford to do financially, emotionally and mentally.” 

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