Are online petition and lobbying groups just political parties in disguise? (Why I won’t share online petitions).

We’ve all done it; you receive a request to sign a petition from an organisation like 38 Degrees via email or Facebook and you sign and select the options to share with friends via twitter, Facebook, Google+ etc. It’s easy, quick and it doesn’t require much thought or effort.

These organisations claim to be non-political; to represent the masses without involving themselves in party politics but is this true? Humans have a tendency to form social groups, to follow, to succumb to peer pressure. Every time you share a petition on-line you’re using peer pressure to help these organsations coerce your friends into supporting their point of view. Organisations like 38 Degrees use inclusive language to make the reader feel a rapport, a belonging to the group at large. There is a strong psychological and sociological basis for this. Humans want, even need, to feel part of a group. The more of your friends who openly support these causes, the more likely you are to support them. A social network creates an implied trust and by extension, when an idea is shared in a social network it creates the same implied trust of the idea and it’s source in your network. Are you really so confident in the source and intention of a petition that you’re willing to personally vouch for it’s integrity? The same theory is used in sales and marketing and yes, also by political parties. Many of these petitions carry the equivalent of a tabloid headline. Emotive language is used to invoke an emotional response without proper consideration of the subject matter. This reaction makes it very easy to manipulate the masses in to showing support for an idea with very little understanding of the issues. Once you’ve shown support for the idea, you’re encouraged to use your social influence to convince your friends to do the same. This process could easily be manipulated. Petitions could be crafted to suggest successively more extreme ideas and many would not notice the resultant gradual erosion of their freedoms and extremism creeping in post by post. History has shown us that governments often go through the transition to extremism slowly, one seemingly reasonable change at a time.

Organisations like 38 degrees are, to me, overtly political even though they claim not to be. It could be argued that they are not party-political in the traditional sense as they seek to influence existing MPs regardless of party. Another argument is that they are a party themselves and should therefore “come out” and register their intention as such.

These sort of organisations, often with good intentions, seek to influence and change the current climate. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. However, I feel that this process should not be pressured. To force your ideas on someone is not freedom. People should be encouraged to understand issues and respond to them, not to react emotionally to tabloid headlines. To illustrate this point, imagine if every Daily Mail headline had a petition attached which readers were asked to sign immediately. I think we’d see some dangerous ideas seeing support when in reality many readers, with proper analysis of the issues, would not agree.

We have to accept that tabloid journalism and sensationalism is part of the political climate in the UK. I wonder if it’s safe, however, for this type of comment and political lobbying to be so closely linked.

So what can you do about it? Personally, I’ve made a decision to not share petitions on Facebook or Twitter any more. If you chose to sign a petition, do so after you’ve read the full text and understand the issues. If you don’t understand, you can always save signing for when you have enough information. Perhaps, abstinence from this debate is more appropriate? Sometimes it’s best to leave it to those who do understand. It used to be considered impolite to impose your political views on your friends and I feel it still should be. Remember, your Facebook friends don’t ask your opinion before every petition post. In this sense they are unsolicited, like spam, and have a real potential to cause annoyance and division between friends.

If you do choose to sign a petition or support a cause, that’s your decision, but don’t help the lobbying organisations pressure everyone else into thinking the same by exploiting your social networks to do so. If you need to share an idea you feel is important, do it personally, write something yourself and let your readers decide.

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