Do online protests really work?

Over at 10 Downing Street’s e-petitions website, Duncan Moss is asking for a referendum to be held on independence for Kent. Luke O’Brien wants to see the £1 note re-introduced, while Michael O’Neil has petitioned to keep the recession going to help cure obesity.

Read our top tips for organising a successful online protest

At the Scottish Parliament’s equivalent, Margot Russell wants the planned works for the Sheriffhall roundabout on the A720 to be brought forward, while 564,299 people have united on Facebook to petition McDonald’s to deliver their food.

Put bluntly, internet users are revolting. With protests covering issues that could generously be described as trivial, through to genuinely life-altering matters – such as changing Government policy on road charges or protesting against press coverage of massacre victims – online campaigns are popping up with increasing frequency.

But do e-petitions and Facebook groups stack up against 50,000 real-life signatures on a piece of paper? And, crucially, do they have any real-world effect at all?

U-turn on road tolls

The logical starting point is to examine the highest profile online campaign that the UK has seen to date. That said, when Peter Roberts posted his 80-word petition on the 10 Downing Street website, protesting against the Government’s plans for road pricing, he started the ball rolling with an email to only 29 people asking them to sign up.

But his trick was that he didn’t stop there. He then e-mailed every driving related website and publication that he could find, and encouraged people to forward his email. That they did, and within a week, his road pricing petition was the most popular on the site.

It was when he amassed 40,000 names that things really took off. Both the TalkSport radio station and The Daily Telegraph covered the petition, and this proved the catalyst for a media scrum that would see Roberts on the front page of newspapers in Washington, Australia and France. At one point, Roberts had to keep three mobile phones on the go just to keep up with the interest his petition was attracting.


Looking back, Roberts – who now runs the Drivers’ Alliance, a group set up with funding attracted in the slipstream of the road-charging petition – believes it was the mix of online and offline tactics that ultimately made his campaign the success it was. “If it had stayed online”, he told PC Pro, “it would have made it to around half-a-million signatures. But the fact that it was offline too, encouraged more people to go and have a look and join the debate”.

In the end, 1,811,424 names were added to the e-petition, and Roberts believes it had a very definite real-world impact. “It kick-started a significant national debate, and put the fear of God up the politicians and assorted quangos,” he argued, “which helped cause the Manchester congestion charge plans to fail”.

Furthermore, Roberts received a response from then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, and while he’s circumspect enough to accept that the issue of road charging is likely to return, in his words “it’s certainly delayed things by five to ten years.”

And yet he feels that it couldn’t be done again. “I wrote a viral email that seemed to work”, he argues. “But the anti-spam software that’s been introduced now can be used to stop viral emails. I don’t think you’ll ever see that sort of viral activity again”.

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