But they could instil a false sense of participation, warn experts

How often have you come across an e-mail that claims to be an online petition, talks about a certain cause, and asks you to sign and forward it? As the number of internet users grows in the city, circulating online petitions is gathering momentum, adding a new dimension to online activism.

In the numerous websites that allow people to draft their own petitions and gather signatures, there are as many as 250 petitions concerning the city, and most of them have an average of 150 signatures. From demanding renovation of a neglected megalithic burial site on Rajiv Gandhi Salai to sensitising people on the need for policemen to talk politely to women, these online petitions, supported mainly by students and professionals across the city seek to drive home many a message.

Experts and activists profess mixed feelings towards online petitions with some vouching for their effectiveness in generating and promoting awareness while others believe that its role is restricted to, at best, that of a supplement to ground-level protests.

Geeta Ramaseshan, advocate and legal expert, says that though online petitions are yet to be adapted to the Indian context, they give an idea of the number of people supporting an issue and allow people to vent their opinions.

The flipside, she says, is that it instils a sense of false participation in people who think a click of mouse is enough to contribute to a certain cause. “But you can't ignore them now,” she says.

Gaurav Mishra, a social media analyst and blogger agrees. “Sometimes, low engagement acts like signing a petition can lead to high engagement acts like making a donation, volunteering time, or organising an event. On other occasions, they also reduce the need to commit to high engagement acts.” Activists need to create triggers to transition their supporters to the next level, he adds.

“Not an end”

Experts say that it is mandatory that once a petition has attracted a certain amount of support, it has to be taken to the next mode - sending those responses to the people concerned to voice a public opinion. “Ultimately a petition is a tool for further activism and advocacy and not an end in itself,” says Mr. Mishra.

Petitions hosted by popular websites help take an issue to more people, says Kaushik Subramanium of Reclaim your Beaches. The organisation initiated a petition last year, addressed to the ministry of Environment and Forests and asking for the amendment of the Coastal Regulation Zone notification 2011, which was signed by people from seven countries. Kaushik points out that people's interest does not stop there. “Recently we conducted a fast on the issue and 60 per cent of the participants were those who had signed the petition.”

Another concern is of authenticity with issues of duplication of signatures, says S. Prasanna, Program Manager, Confederation of Indian Organisations for Service and Advocacy. “If it is a serious cause, it is better to connect through phones and text messages,” he concludes.

And then there are organisations which prefer addressing officials directly in the prescribed format. “Earlier we used to circulate online petitions and also write to the concerned officers but now we focus exclusively on the latter, says A. Subramany, director (operator) of 5th Pillar, an organisation that promotes awareness corruption-related concerns. “In the case of civic issues, it is better to ask sharp questions about pending work and get things done, instead of depending on web tools,” he opines.

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Vasudha VenugopalJune 28, 2012