The number appears resounding: More than 800,000 people want Judge Aaron Persky to lose his job for what’s been widely viewed as a lenient sentence in the Brock Turner rape case.
So, more people than who live in Charlotte, North Carolina, want to see Persky tossed out on his ear for handing a white, well-to-do former Stanford University athlete a six-month sentence for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.
And that’s just the change.org petition. Other petitions at moveon.org and the White House’s We the People site have garnered about 100,000 and 25,000 signatures, respectively.
But will this yield any real action, or is this just another example of “slacktivism” or “clicktivism,” arguably meaningless acts of supporting social causes without investing any real effort in effecting change?
Tough to say.
Joseph Kony & the Chibok girls
Despite some successes that we’ll delve into at the end of this article, the debate over the efficacy of online petitions is well-trod. The myth-busting site, Snopes, has documented how online petitions can be rife with bad or misleading information.
Journalist Malcolm Gladwell has explained the vast differences between networks, such as the one that monitors and edits Wikipedia, and hierarchies, such as the ones that produced the Montgomery bus boycott or the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins of the civil rights era.
“Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose,” Gladwell wrote in a 2010 essay. “This structure makes networks enormously resilient and adaptable in low-risk situations.”
A couple of recent examples are Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and the 276 Chibok, Nigeria, schoolgirls kidnapped by terror group Boko Haram.
The YouTube video, “Kony 2012,” which sought to have the fugitive war criminal arrested before 2013, drew enormous attention to its cause, pulling more than 101 million views and almost 1.4 million “likes” to date.
Similarly, following the 2014 Boko Haram abduction, the #bringbackourgirls hashtag became one of the most popular on Earth, even drawing in first lady Michelle Obama.
Yet four years after the Kony video — which, to be clear, took considerably more effort to produce than it did to view or to like — the warlord and his Lord’s Resistance Army militants are still being chased across Northern Uganda, or maybe South Sudan, or perhaps the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they were recently suspected of involvement in kidnapping civilians. This, despite the U.S. lending Special Forces advisers for the hunt and offering up a $5 million reward.
As for the Chibok girls, two years after the hashtag zinged all over the Internet, most of the girls remain missing.
‘Petitions produce signatures’
Creating awareness via petitions and other online tools is one thing. Creating meaningful action — in which supporters lend their own time, resources, freedom or safety — is wholly another.
Awareness is merely the first step. Converting awareness into change takes organization: convincing others to share the petition or relay their own stories, and then, donate or attend and organize local events, according to David Hsu, director of charities and higher education for NationBuilder
“In sum, petitions produce signatures. Organized petition campaigns produce new leaders,” Hsu wrote in an essay last summer.
This isn’t to say the petitions to oust Judge Persky won’t work, just that it’s a bit more complicated than retweeting outrage and collecting signatures, according to California law.
Change.org boasts 100 million users posting 1,000 new petitions daily ranging from major global issues to the hyperlocal. At least six have popped up in relation to the Stanford case.
The San Francisco startup’s website touts many “victories” on its impact page, and spokeswoman Eva Arevuo said the rate of victories is about one per hour.
“In terms of determining impact, we know that petitions drive conversations forward and into the open,” she said. “We also know that petition starters expand their community of supporters through a combination of online and offline actions.
“The result is that petition signatures, social media, traditional media coverage, and offline actions serve as a reflection of popular interest and support and let the decision maker know that the issue is gaining momentum and cannot be ignored.”
A more concerted effort?
Despite petition starter Maria Ruiz, a Miami nurse, sending her petition to lawmakers and urging signatories to file complaints against Persky with the California Commission on Judicial Performance, at least one observer doesn’t feel the change.org effort “is connected to a real recall.”
That’s Stanford University law professor Michele Dauber. As Gladwell and Hsu point out, she feels that removing Persky from the bench will take more than a pile of online signatures.
“We have organized a steering committee,” she said, explaining that the “real” recall effort is being spearheaded by the Super PAC, Progressive Women of Silicon Valley.
The effort includes an attorney and political operatives experienced in “signature-based local referenda,” she said in an email. It also incorporates dedicated social accounts, a website with a donation portal and registration with the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
“We are aware of the task, do not feel at all daunted by it, and are confident that we can prevail,” she said. “We believe that we can do better than Aaron Persky and that after this election we will have a new judge who is committed to womens’ safety and security on campus.”
Calls to Persky’s chambers went unanswered, and there were no means of leaving him a voice message. Multiple calls and emails to the court spokesman also were not returned.
But can petitions work?
Though Dauber says she doesn’t believe the petition is the best vehicle for removing Persky from office, her fellow faculty at the Stanford Social Innovation Review have devoted significant ink to change.org. In one article, the review cites news articles demonstrating where the group’s petitions have led Gatorade to speed up its phase-out of brominated vegetable oil and convinced Abercrombie & Fitch to offer plus-size clothing.
Here are a few other noted “victories” lauded by change.org and others:
The push to convince the Campaign on Presidential Debates to employ its first female moderator — kicked off by three high school students in New Jersey — ended with the campaign’s August 2012 decision to tap then-CNNer Candy Crowley to moderate the year’s second presidential debate.
“Don’t make domestic violence victims pay to stay safe” (194,767 signatures)
Acting on behalf of a friend, a victim of domestic abuse, Cynthia Butterworth started a petition asking Verizon to stop charging domestic violence victims early termination fees when they seek to sever a joint contract they share with their abuser. In September 2012, Verizon reached out to Butterworth to let her know about new policies and programs aimed at helping domestic abuse survivors.
Remember “pink slime,” the ammonia hydroxide-treated meat product used as a filler in ground beef? Mother and writer Bettina Siegel was disturbed to find ground beef containing pink slime was used in the National School Lunch Program. After her petition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it would begin offering school districts a choice between ground beef with or without the filler.
Ann Arbor, Michigan, high school student Katy Butler had been bullied in middle school, so she was upset when the documentary, “Bully,” received an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. The very teens the documentary aimed to educate would be kept out of theaters, she worried. Once her petition caught the attention of celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres and Meryl Streep, and a half-million others, the MPAA changed the film’s rating to PG-13.
“There is no such thing as a child prostitute,” began the petition from the Human Rights Project for Girls. In the petition, Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew pleaded with The Associated Press to stop using the term. She herself had been exploited from ages 10 to 17, and though she had been charged with solicitation and jailed in the past, she was adamant that she was not a sex worker but “a survivor of child rape.” In April, The AP said it would stop using the term.