Trumping Digital Democracy


Do online petitions exert any real political influence? Perhaps not, for now

It is quite clear that a lot of Britons are severely pessimistic about Donald Trump. At least that is what a petition on the UK Parliament’s website suggests. At the time The Cyber Solicitor posted this article, nearly 2 million people have signed a petition to bar President Trump’s State visit to the UK later this year. As a result, time has been set aside in Parliament to debate the matter on February 20th. But how significant are these online petitions in the UK’s political process?

The website for these e-petitions began in 2006, initiated by the then Labour government. In the first six months, nearly 3,000 new petitions were set up. Once a petition reaches the threshold of 100,000 signatures, a change implemented by the coalition government in 2011, then the matter may be debated on in Parliament.

When it was first introduced, some were quite critical. One government minister described the setting up of the site as a political own goal. In its early days about 1.8 million people supported a petition to rid of Labour’s policy for planned vehicle tracking and road policy. It eventually was scrapped.

Contrastingly, others may not take these online petitions so seriously. This is due to the existence some ‘spoof’ petitions, which can be described as proposals which are not even remotely realistic and are just plain silly. For example, more than 50,000 people supported the idea of making Jeremy Clarkson prime minister. Such inanity was awarded by a waggish reply from the UK government via a YouTube video.

But one of the most prolific issues, it seems, at the fore of UK politics right now is no joke. Many people are seriously opposed to President Trump’s visit for his controversial decisions thus far in office. The latest, and perhaps most vexing, of his executive orders suspends citizens from seven Muslim majority countries entering the United States for 90 days. It also puts a halt on all refugee admissions for 120 days and indefinitely bans Syrian refugees. Such policy decisions, as well as Trump’s rhetoric during the brutal presidential campaign leading up to his election victory in November, has made him a very unpopular figure in the UK. The very popular petition stopping his visit is a reflection of this.

However, not many MPs share quite the same sentiment. Although some have been quite outspoken of their disapproval of the 45th President, few have gone as far to say that he should not be allowed to visit. The government is cautious about damaging relations with the United States, seen as one of the UK’s closest allies. This is particularly so at a time when the government is keen to make a trade deal with the largest economy in the world (in terms or nominal GDP) in light of its decision to leave Europe’s single market. Thus, even if a debate regarding the issue does take place, it is unlikely to result in a Trump ban.

E-petitions are seen as a way to encourage political engagement, which is important especially since it has been falling. But this mechanism, overall, does not seem to wield any real influence that would make it worthwhile for citizens; over 26,000 petitions have been set up, and just 47 have been debated in Parliament. Thus, Parliament will not necessarily debate an issue even upon reaching 100,000 signatures.

Nevertheless, using the internet to engage more people with politics seems like a good idea. In an age where the internet has, undeniably, become a massively significant platform for discussion and information-sharing, it is would be advantageous both for voters and politicians to utilise such a tool. The significance of social media in political campaigns, for example (read more), is one form of this. But for now, e-petitions, while popular, do not seem to play any real role in the UK’s political process. But, it is a start.


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