by Brian Tomasik
First written: 9 Feb. 2013; last update: 12 Feb. 2017

Summary

Online petitions may have a small expected direct impact, especially when the cause is important, the campaign is targeted, and the decision-makers receive the messages. In the best cases, the cost-effectiveness may be nontrivial, but in the average case, I think a good rule of thumb is that petitions aren't the best use of activist time unless you do them for leisure or self-education. The bigger effects of petitions may be indirect -- promoting the sponsoring organization and raising awareness among those signing. These impacts may be decently worthwhile for some groups, including those working on factory farming, but for the most effective causes (e.g., wild-animal suffering and future computational suffering), creating petitions for purposes of awareness raising probably wouldn't work well. I wouldn't discourage petition-signing, but I would encourage more ambitious projects to those able to undertake them.

Introduction

These days, there are lots of online petitions for various causes, including animal welfare. Is it effective to sign such petitions? To create them? I'm not a professional lobbyist, but below are my thoughts.

All petitions are not created equal

The first question is: Does signing a petition actually help persuade decision-makers, and how much? I think there's significant variation depending on a few dimensions.

Is the cause important?

Most petitions are for numerically less important causes. For example, from Change.org's current list of animal petitions, I see

  • "Transportation Safety Administration: Stop losing our pets!"
  • "USDA: No More Lion Burgers! Ban the Sale of Lion Meat"
  • "Texas Police: Stop using deadly force on family pets!"
  • "Wild Horses Saved From Slaughter"
  • "Nike: Stop the slaughter of kangaroos to make your soccer shoes!"

While each of these causes is based on some tragic incidents that may have been the worst thing in the world for several individuals, they simply cannot be cost-effective given the numbers of animals involved relative to the annual slaughter worldwide of ~50 billion chickens, 1-3 trillion fish, and orders of magnitude more wild animals (killed by other wild animals).

One of my favorite petitions is PETA's campaign to ask McDonald's to use controlled-atmosphere killing. Actually, I'm not much a fan of the appearance of the site (nor of all of PETA in general), but the numerical importance of this topic is compelling.

Who is the target?

Petitioning your own representatives is much more useful than petitioning people who have little interest in what you say. For example, when writing to legislators, only write to your own unless, e.g., there's a key individual on a committee who needs to be swayed. Petitions to the president of China, say, probably do little because he has no interest in what you think except for the tiny way in which this indicates world sentiment toward China. In any event, I'm skeptical such petitions are ever delivered to the president of China's staff. If you write to your legislators on an issue, make sure you're using an online tool that actually delivers the message in the form of an email.

Is the request specific?

Any introductory activism book will explain that petition campaigns don't work unless the ask is specific: e.g., "Cosponsor HR 1234, the Humane Fish Slaughter Act," rather than "End animal cruelty in the US!"

What's the direct impact?

I would guess this varies a lot as well. Of course, if the petition is never delivered, then the answer is "zero." If it does get delivered (e.g., a direct email / phone call to your legislator), then it may have some impact.

As you would expect, the more effort that goes in to lobbying, the more seriously people on the other end take it. If you sign a one-minute petition, this could matter a tiny bit, but it matters less than a phone call to their office, and it matters far less than an in-person visit. When I was in high school, I wrote a document elaborating on different ways to write to your representatives that have different degrees of expected impact.

Stories from a lobbyist

In my early high-school years, I attended a presentation by a relatively high-powered lobbyist who gave candid recollections of his campaign experiences. He explained that contacting your representatives can matter, especially in a highly focused advocacy campaign, and that communication matters most when it's more personal (e.g., phone calls rather than e-petitions). The lobbyist recounted a few occasions on which the campaigns he organized actually made a politician's staff scared, and once or twice, the Congressperson called him back personally to talk about the issue. So calling Congress is not necessarily useless.

My Congress experience

In summer 2006, I interned in the Washington, DC office of a member of the US House of Representatives. We received lots of emails, letters, and phone calls from constituents. This page says: "Legislative staffers often count the number of letters of support and opposition on an issue, giving the legislator a mini-poll of district opinion." This claim is somewhat consistent with my own experience, at least for big votes. Usually the number of messages for a major issue was on the order of a ~100 to ~300, so the influence of a single person is not necessarily small.

For example, suppose that letters constitute 10% of the influence over how the Congressman votes, and he receives 200 letters, so that each letter has a 10%/200 = 0.05% influence. Say that the Congressman's vote, in turn, has an F fractional chance of affecting the outcome of a bill that would help 10 billion chickens. Then one letter is worth (0.05% * F) * (10 billion) chickens helped. I'm not sure what F is, but even if it's like 1 in 100,000, that's still ~50 chickens helped in expectation, which is not trivial. Ignoring fish, it's comparable to creating a vegetarian-year, which might cost ~$11 (though this estimate may be overly optimistic from an outside-view perspective).

On occasion, when no interns were around, the staff members at the office answered phone calls on their own. In this case, the caller presumably had more potential for impact, through subtle influence over the minds of the staffers who would go on to write memos for the Congressman explaining an issue. (This isn't to say the expected impact of callers was always positive! Some of those phoning in ranted angrily, possibly making the staffers less receptive to the message.)

Case study: Harvard cage-free petition

In 2011, a Harvard freshman led a petition campaign asking dining services to use cage-free eggs. In Oct. 2011, Harvard consented. From the Change.org explanation:

Although Harvard University used some cage-free eggs, students and alumni wanted more humane dining halls serving 100% cage-free eggs. For months, Harvard University Dining Services defended its decision to continue serving battery cage eggs. Then Harvard students started a Change.org petition, and gathered more than 7,000 signatures. They enlisted the support of major donors who pledged to withhold donations from the university unless they went cage-free. The students even talked to the university president, who expressed his support for their campaign. On October 17, HUDS acknowledged that "customers have expressed a strong interest in this change" and announced that by the end of October, all of Harvard's eggs - both shell and liquid - would be cage-free, the equivalent of 1.8 million eggs.

My best guess (based on a similar effort at my own college, but I could be wrong) was that initially, the number of Harvard's eggs that were cage-free was small (<5%), so that the increase due to the campaign probably was roughly 1.8 million per year.

Now, Bailey Norwood has suggested that if cage-free eggs reduce hen productivity, total suffering could potentially be higher with cage-free eggs because more total chickens would be needed (and hence more total instances of slaughter, more male chicks killed, etc.). But for now, let's assume that humane organizations know what they're doing and are right to encourage cage-free eggs. 1.8 million eggs is, at roughly 1 egg per day, ~5000 chicken-years of life improved. This happens every year that Harvard is cage-free, so we should multiply by the number of years. I don't know exactly how many years to give credit for, but say it's ~10. In addition, the petition was only a piece of the campaign, and perhaps the alumni donors threatening to cut off support had a bigger impact. There was also work by the organizers themselves. So say the petition accounted for ~10% of the effort needed to achieve victory. Multiplying this all together, we get (5000)*(10)(10%) = 5000 chicken-years of suffering reduced. The number of signatures was ~7000, so assuming each signature had equal expected impact, this is almost one chicken-year for each signature.

The reduced suffering here may not be the same as a year of life prevented on factory farms (since cage-free hens probably still have net negative lives), but say it's like 1/2 or 1/3 as good. Then one signature on this petition would be about the same as $1 donated to The Humane League's veg ads, again ignoring the fish deaths prevented by the veg ads. If signing the petition takes 2 minutes, that's like $30/hour.

But there's a big caveat: I chose this campaign because it was successful, but how many similar campaigns are there that fail? 3 times as many? 10 times as many? Depending on what this fraction is, the dollar-per-hour equivalent would be reduced a fair amount. Maybe it would be <$3/hour.

Case study: Centerplate petition

In 2013, a Change.org petition was started asking Centerplate to go cage-free; it received 64,564 signatures. In addition to the petition, activists from The Humane League (and probably other organizations?) did legwork behind the scenes. One year later, Centerplate agreed to convert to cage-free the 600,000 shelled eggs it uses annually.

If the petition was the only factor responsible, and if each signature counted equally, this would imply a payoff of ~10 eggs converted to cage-free per person per year. Of course, the petition was just one part of a larger campaign. In addition, fortuity may have played a role as well: Just a month before the announcement, the CEO of Centerplate was caught kicking a puppy and then resigned. My speculation is that Centerplate quickly pushed ahead with the cage-free policy as a way to restore its public image on animal welfare.

Still, even if the causal contribution of the petition was a mere 5%, that implies 0.5 cage-free eggs per signature per year, which is multiplied over a period of several years. Factoring in selection bias given that many petitions don't succeed would reduce this number by some amount.

Case study: Tesco petition

This page reports: "Tesco is to stop selling eggs from caged hens by 2025 after a teenager's petition attracted more than 280,000 signatures." Once again, there may have been other work going on behind the scenes, and this victory was in part a result of previous momentum that had already convinced other supermarkets to go cage-free. But the petition probably helped. And given that Tesco sells 600 million eggs per year, even if the petition only made 5% of the difference toward Tesco going cage-free 1 year ahead of schedule (which are very conservative assumptions), each signature on average averted (600 million) * 5% / (280,000) = 100 battery-cage eggs. Since a hen requires about a day to produce an egg, that's like 100 days of life in a battery cage (minus the painfulness of cage-free egg production).

A good petition is hard to find

Another reason the above figure could be overstated is that the hardest part isn't signing the petition but finding it in the first place. For every Harvard cage-free petition, there are 20 others that are far less useful. In some cases, I don't even know if the impact of the petition would be net positive or negative, especially for petitions relating to wildlife preservation. Even something like banning the slaughter of horses is dubious: On the one hand, it promotes the idea that it's bad to cause suffering to animals (horses), which is good, but the direct impact may actually be to increase suffering through more consumption of chicken/fish.

If I happen to see a petition that looks good -- e.g., shared by a friend on Facebook -- I do it in 2 minutes and don't think much more about it. But I don't usually go out of my way to look for new petitions that could be promising.

If you do enjoy petition hunting, you might want to share the good ones that you find with those of your friends who also enjoy petitions to reduce their cost in finding them. But I don't suggest this is likely the best use of time.

What's the cost to you?

I generally don't recommend seeking out petitions as something to do with your "working hours" for animal activism. There are other projects (if only working toward making money) that could be a lot more valuable in expectation. However, there could be cases in which browsing petitions would make sense:

  1. You enjoy it more than other activism work, so it comes out of your "leisure time" budget rather than "work time" budget.
  2. You're ignorant of the kinds of things animal activists write petitions about and want to get a sense of the issues out there for your general edification. For instance, if it's a choice between reading random news stories vs. reading random petitions, you may as well do the petitions so that you at least get a signature out of the arrangement.

That said, if you want a way to make a direct, tangible impact through online work, I recommend giving encouragement to new vegetarians on factory-farming videos rather than signing petitions.

What's the indirect impact?

All right -- now to the (vegan) meat of the story. To use a Hansonian phrase, "Petitions aren't about petitioning." I think many activist groups use petitions for reasons other than direct lobbying. I've never heard this stated explicitly, but it seems plausible from what I've seen on the outside.

Self-promotion

You may have gotten letters in the mail from advocacy groups asking you to write to Congress about animal protection. And, oh by the way, here's a donation form to fill out if you're interested, sometimes even sent along with the petition itself. People may not donate in isolation, but because they want to send in the petition, their inertia about donating is reduced. And including a petition means fewer people will throw out the letter as "one more junk-mail request for money."

The same doesn't apply as much on Change.org, Care2, etc., but organizational self-promotion may still be one big reason why groups start petitions. For example, Mercy for Animals (one of the best US animal groups) has put out a few petitions, and the organization's name is in the byline.

Awareness raising

This is probably the single biggest impact of most petitions. People who sign have to spend at least a few seconds reading about an issue, and this can affect their own views. For example, a Mercy for Animals petition about cruelty by a supplier of McDonald's eggs includes the same sorts of information as one would read in a press release on the topic, so in this sense, Change.org is one more media outlet that Mercy for Animals can tap into.

So signing a petition may be similar to Liking a post shared on Facebook: It's a hook to get people to think about something. In addition, it can make people feel like they're engaged rather than despairing that "everything is hopeless; why bother?"

When atheists ask, "Why does God want so many people to pray for him? Is he really that needy?" some theologians reply, "Prayer is done for the benefit of the person who prays, to connect him/her with God and ease his/her own mind." It would be an exaggeration to say that petitions are exactly parallel, because as seen above, they can have real, tangible effects too. But the analogy between petitions and prayer has merit.

Now, it's worth pointing out that the awareness-raising effect feeds into the direct impact. The main reason why politicians, companies, and dining halls care about petitions is because the number of signatures is proof that at least X people have read at least a few sentences about this topic.

Foot in the door

From Wikipedia's article:

Foot-in-the-door (FITD) technique is a compliance tactic that involves getting a person to agree to a large request by first setting them up by having that person agree to a modest request.[1][2][3] The foot-in-the-door technique succeeds owing to a basic human reality that social scientists call "successive approximations". Essentially, the more a subject goes along with small requests or commitments, the more likely that subject is to continue in a desired direction of attitude or behavioral change and feel obligated to go along with larger requests.[4] FITD works by first getting a small 'yes' and then getting an even bigger 'yes.'

When we get people to sign a petition against Butterball turkey cruelty, for example, we encourage them to say to themselves that they're willing to make a small sacrifice to help animals. Maybe this impulse will grow later on and encourage them to go veg.

It might also encourage them to grow into more mature activists. To quote Mary Joyce:

You can't make a baby by kissing just like you can't end poverty or elect a president or gain civil rights by joining a Facebook group or tweeting or forwarding an SMS.

But, like those first tentative gestures of affection, Facebook and Twitter and SMS are a place to start that can lead to something grand and life-changing. They are a first point of contact, a place to say "I believe this," "I agree with you," "this should change," and finally "let's do something about it."

Unintended consequences?

Signing a petition may indeed introduce people to new issues, and often, once you're done signing one, the website presents you with another set that might interest you. So spreading one petition may lead people to explore neighboring causes. For this reason, I'm sometimes wary of sharing Care2 petitions, because so many of the petitions on that site relate to environmental conservation, which I fear often increases suffering by wild animals because habitat preservation means more small, r-selected animals will be born to short lives and painful deaths. I'm not sure how concerned I should be about this.

Should we start petitions?

Okay, so except when the direct impacts of a petition are potentially large or the opportunity cost is small, I think it's not the most cost-effective undertaking to sign them. But as we saw, many of the benefits of petitions are influence effects on the signers. So would it make sense for those of us in the advocacy world to make our own petitions to spread awareness of our cause?

Maybe, but the problem is that the best causes (e.g., wild-animal suffering) aren't very amenable to petitions -- especially not the best kinds of petitions described above that have a specific target and a clear request. I'm not thrilled about the idea of creating a general petition to "End wild-animal suffering" because it's obviously so useless in a direct sense. Maybe we could just use the usual Like buttons and Facebook shares on articles as a way for people to express their support and for us to measure it. Indeed, these probably have more value, because more Liked posts are promoted in news feeds, and Shared articles multiply the number of viewers.

One could theoretically invent micro-level petitions based on a cause (e.g., regarding some particular instance of humans harming wild animals), but I'm wary of this because it dilutes what makes the cause so urgent in the first place: namely, the leverage we can achieve by affecting so many animals through ecosystem-level research and intervention. It could make people distracted with minutiae, and it doesn't highlight the big-picture concerns, like reducing populations of r-selected organisms and not spreading wildlife into space or in sentient simulations.

So, no, I can't think of a case where it makes sense to create a petition, but I'm open to hearing suggestions otherwise.

Should we discourage petition-signing?

Okay, so maybe it seems plausible that effective activists shouldn't spend a lot of time signing petitions. What should we do about lay activists who sign them?

In general, I would rather not discourage petition-signing, because petition-signing has nonzero direct impact sometimes and downplaying the efficacy of petitions might make people cynical (and would dilute the awareness-raising benefits that were one of the motivations for doing them in the first place). Plus, as noted before, petitions can be a gateway drug to bigger things. Most people who sign petitions wouldn't otherwise be researching, fundraising, meme-spreading, or strategizing; they would instead be browsing cat videos on YouTube or reading Harry Potter. So it's good to keep such people at least closer to the cause than they would be otherwise. (I don't mean to speak badly of cat videos or Harry Potter! Having fun and learning from these things is good in moderation.)

However, if we know someone specific who we think has the potential to grow into a more effective activist, we should encourage that person to try more ambitious things. We should cast it in a positive light: Not that petitions are a waste of time (because, in fact, they're not), but that other projects might be even better.

Feedback

The original Felicifia post has comments from readers.