Last semester I wrote a column arguing that online petitions are pointless. I wrote about the Kony 2012 campaign’s interest in making money and the popularity of a “build the Death Star” petition on the White House site. I still think those are examples of bad and wasteful things but, on the whole, I’ve come to the realization that what I said back then was wrong. Online petitions can make a difference; even ones that are bad.
Take Kony 2012, the campaign led by Invisible Children. According to the Telegraph, in April of this year, the U.S. government offered a $5 million reward for information on Joseph Kony. Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, was accused by Invisible Children activists and others of multiple counts of war crimes. The U.S. had already sent over 100 military advisors back in 2012, but it is unknown if that was in response to the viral video campaign.
The reason I am constantly deriding Invisible Children is that, upon close inspection, they have a shady track record. According to the Guardian, they spend around 30 percent of their donations on their own cause and the rest on luxurious travel expenses and high salaries. They also are not exactly welcome in Uganda. The film is mocked there for having information that was 10 years old when the video was new, not introducing African solutions to the problem, but rather shaming the West into giving the charity money and military support and for providing other incorrect information.
Taking a look elsewhere there are other, perhaps more positive, examples of online petitioners – or “slacktivists,” as they are pejoratively called – making a difference. In the Nov. 11 issue of Time magazine this year, there was a technology spotlight on change.org. It listed some big causes that the website had recently lent a hand to. Initiatives like banning everyone’s favorite “pink slime” from school lunches, informing people that the NFL is apparently the biggest nonprofit and getting India to regulate the sale of acid in the country to stop people from attacking women with it.
Ultimately, despite some discouraging examples, online petitions are a legitimate and effective avenue to take. Even if it’s for a hypocritical or two-faced charity that is booed in the country it’s supposed to help, you can at least say that there were results from an action you took. It is still a lot better than denouncing those who try and high-fiving your friends about how you made fun of that video everyone you know thinks is annoying.
So here is a request: think about advocating for something you think is wrong. The world needs more solutions than it needs apathy and procrastination.
Patrick White is a senior in journalism and electronic media. Please send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.