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Can Online Petitions Change the World?

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Across Canada doorbells are ringing and diets are falling to the irresistible sales pitches of little girls in uniform. It's Girl Guide cookie season. But nine-year-old Maya Fischer of Victoria, B.C. isn't out pushing delectable chocolate-mint treats, she's trying to remake them -- free from genetically-modified ingredients. She's gathering signatures on her online petition to Girl Guides of Canada. At press time, she had 27,100 and was a featured petition on the e-petition website Change.org.

Pick a cause, any cause, from the compelling to the ridiculous, and there will be an e-petition for it: award Malala Yousafzai the Nobel prize (298,681 signatures); condemn Russia's anti-gay laws at the Olympics (213,593 signatures); or put the Trailer Park Boys on Canadian currency. A call to release Grand Theft Auto on PC is stealing the show on Change.org with 600,000 signatures.

Canadian filmmakers John Greyson and Tarek Loubani may owe their freedom to an online petition signed by almost 150,000 people. The pair just returned to Canada after 50 harrowing days in an Egyptian jail -- the petition raised global awareness of their plight.

Online petitions -- they are the ubiquitous new face of participatory democracy. We'll bet even now, lurking in your inbox or Facebook page, there's at least one impassioned plea to change the world with a mouse click. The million-dollar (or perhaps million-signature) questions are: do all those signatures mean people are becoming more socially engaged; and are they actually having an impact?

As teens, we petitioned for the release of jailed Indian child labour activist Kailash Satyarthi the old-fashioned way -- with pen and paper, haunting the farmers' market to lobby every passing shopper and hitting up our neighbours. We gathered 10,000 signatures, spent countless hours verifying them, and posted the petition to our Member of Parliament in a shoebox. It was read aloud in the House of Commons. Real old-school activism.

But online petitions are derided as new-school "slacktivism."

Skeptics believe e-petitions are paper tigers because the people who make and sign them aren't truly engaged in the cause. With a click the slacktivist joins 10 causes before breakfast -- and has forgotten them by the time the toaster pops.

The skeptics might be wrong. A 2011 study by researchers at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., found that those who support a cause online -- signing an e-petition or joining a Facebook group -- are two times more likely to volunteer their time for the cause, four times more likely to follow up by contacting a decision-maker, and five times more likely to recruit others, than a person who supports a cause offline, e.g. with a paper petition.

"The term slacktivism is unfair and inaccurate as a descriptive of the online petition phenomenon," says Dr. Jonathan White, Director of Service Learning at Bentley University in Massachusetts and an expert in cause engagement.

So online activists aren't slacktivists, but are their petitions having an impact?

The first thing to realize is that there are two basic origins of online petitions.

In the first, non-profit organizations like Avaaz launch a campaign to address a global issue -- like the Tanzanian government uprooting Maasai villages to make way for a game park. Avaaz uses an online petition to raise global awareness and support for their campaign. After Avaaz rallied 1.7-million signatures, the Tanzanian Prime Minister told the Maasai they would not be evicted.

In the second, individual citizens use a free do-it-yourself petition website like Change.org to start a personal campaign. In Halifax, for example, Sherri Bain started her own Change.org petition to shame the Nova Scotia government into reviewing police conduct in the Rehteah Parsons bullying-suicide case. In April, then-Premier Darrell Dexter announced there would be an independent review. At Change.org, organizations can also "sponsor" a petition -- paying to promote their petition to users.

We spoke with representatives from Avaaz and Change.org. They point to successes like Tanzania and Nova Scotia to show petitions can have an impact but -- and here's the critical part -- only when backed up with real-world action. Avaaz organizes global media and lobbying efforts around its petitions.

Change.org trains petitioners like Maya (and her mom) in media relations and lobbying. To rephrase an old expression: change cannot live by petition alone. Do media interviews, organize a march, make follow-up calls to decision-makers, and recruit your friends to do the same.

So skeptics take heed: to dismiss online activism as mere slacktivism is to ignore one of the very real positive social benefits of the Internet. But a warning to activists as well: e-petitions can help you change the world, but only when mixed with a little old-school elbow grease.

And in case you're worried, we won't be seeing the Trailer Park Boys on a $10 bill any time soon -- they only have six signatures so far.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.