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The Director of Change.org Australia Explains How Slacktivism Is a Myth

Do online petitions actually make a difference, or do they just make us feel better? Karen Skinner takes us behind the button.

by Katherine Gillespie
16 May 2016, 12:00am

Click for change. Image by Maddison Connaughton.

Forget the boring big picture economic issues you hear about on Budget night. Online petitions tackle the political gripes that everyday people actually care about, and they seem to be surprisingly effective.

Change.org is one such online petition platform. Some of its recent campaigns have successfully petitioned for the decriminalisation of medicinal cannabis as well as instituting a cap on credit card surcharges. You can create a successful petition that changes government policy even if you're too young to vote. Last year, a 14-year-old girl successfully petitioned the state of New South Wales to include domestic violence education in its school curriculum. In fact, nearly half of all Change.org users (46 percent) are under the age of 34.

VICE asked Change.org's Australian director Karen Skinner why some petitions work, as well as her thoughts on slacktivism.

VICE: It's easy to be cynical about online petitions. But does clicking a button actually make a difference?
Karen Skinner: People talk about slacktivism and clicktivism or whatever term you want to use, but it's not the case. We're seeing 3.7 million Australians starting online petitions. It shows Australians have issues that they care about, and they want to see things change. We're also seeing a petition win every 24 hours. Change is being enacted. Slacktivism is just a dismissive term, it's not the reality.

Do you find it weird then when people criticise online petitions as a symbol of apathy?
Yes. The thing is that petitions are often a starting point. Once you've started a petition then the petitioner can send you a message asking people to call a politician, attend a rally, give examples of how they've been affected by the issue, fill out the survey. That's what's really powerful. It's not just the signing.

Were you surprised by how effective the medicinal cannabis reform petition was?
I'm always surprised by the variety of things people care about. The issues that wouldn't have come up on my radar necessarily but which to different groups are really important. That's what's so powerful about us letting people determine for themselves what they want to see changed. Medicinal cannabis reform is a great recent example of that. It was started by Lucy and her son Dan, who was diagnosed with cancer and used medicinal cannabis to deal with the horrific side effects of chemotherapy.

Lucy is a mum in a regional town with a husband who used to be part of the drug squad. They're not your traditional drug campaigners. Unfortunately Dan died during the campaign, but Lucy was able to continue and she changed the hearts and minds of Australians and politicians.

Lucy Haslam who set up a successful campaign on medical marijuna. Image via

Are there any other Change.org success stories that have surprised you?There's the petition started by Josie, a teenager in New South Wales whose mother was a victim of domestic violence and committed suicide. Three weeks after the suicide, Josie started a petition asking for education in schools so children know what domestic violence is, because she wishes she'd known that what was happening wasn't okay.

She was able to bring that change in NSW and now federally. We're talking about a 14-year-old girl who is suffering immensely and you wouldn't have thought of as someone in a particularly powerful position. But she was able to change the national curriculum.

What's another?
Another example would be the petition started by a Catholic priest to campaign against use of the "gay panic defence" to downgrade murder charges. That's a big issue for people within the gay rights community, and the petition has over 100,000 signatures. The Labor party now has it as part of their policy. A Catholic priest is not who we think of as a traditional gay rights activist, but the issue ended up getting extensive media coverage.

Why have online petitions become so popular?
I think that online, issues tend to bubble to the fore of what more traditional advocacy organisations aren't working on. We do have petitions about gay marriage for example, but bigger organisations are doing a lot in that space. Our most successful petitions are issues that have very personal stories, or issues that no one else is talking about.

Change.org Australia CEO Karen Skinner. Image supplied.

Does the success of online petitions say something about frustrations feel for traditional democracy?
I think one of the problems Australia has is that both major political parties tend to come up with their big policies by focus grouping their messages and trying to engage the electorate in really broad ways, like TV ads. But what people actually want is a different kind of engagement that's mainly online, which is where they are most of the time. People also want politicians to cover alternative issues you don't often hear about. Politicians really are missing the opportunity to engage on these online platforms, to engage directly with people.

Someone really needs to teach some politicians to use computers.
Yes, I think young people are increasingly wanting to mobilise communities online and they're demanding politicians join them. But a lot of them will have to be dragged kicking and screaming.

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Karen Skinner will be a guest speaker at REMIX Sydney, which runs through June 2–3. For a chance to win a ticket to REMIX email us at aucomps@vice.com.

Tagged:
MEDICAL MARIJUANA
activism
protest
change.org
VICE Australia
clicktivism
Lucy Haslam
slacktivism
karen skinner