Online petitioning sites make it easier to start campaigns on issues you believe in and also participate and support causes that are important to you.
Sites like Avaaz.org and Change.org are perfect examples of this new forum. These websites allow anyone to start a petition on an issue they believe in. For example, recently in BC, a family started a petition to force the Minister of Health to provide better emergency services for children with significant mental health issues; as their child had violent episodes, they had to call the police and the child was brought to the emergency room at the local hospital. Unfortunately, the hospital had to turn them away after minimal treatment as they were not equipped to deal with this child. The family, having nowhere else to turn, decided they needed to pressure their MP and the Minister of Health. They collected over 6000 signatures in the first week or so.
A few years ago, this would have been impossible. But this new forum allows for these issues to be better known, signatures collected more easily, and appeals made to a larger audience. Starting a petition and then posting it to Facebook and Twitter means that your appeal with be forwarded to friends of friends and so forth. It also means that your appeal will likely leave your community and have a greater impact. While the government may not be motivated to respond to a petition of 2,000 signatures from Squamish, BC, collected over a month campaign, they may be more inclined to respond if the petition was signed by 200,000 people across 10 provinces, collected in half the time.
As well, participating has never been easier. While an individual may be willing to sign a petition if asked on the street, people do not generally seek out petitions. As well, even if they believe in the issue, they may not have the time to stop and talk with the petitioner. But receiving an email or seeing a post on Facebook, might entice a person to read on, and take 2 minutes to sign the petition and re-post. This is particularly important for issues that affect the entire globe. While many have heard about human right abuses in Afghanistan or natural habitat destruction in the jungles of Peru, now they can be part of the solution.
Some people argue that these petitions have no effect on actual policies. Although direct links may be difficult to prove, some widespread petitions have inevitably been influential. Only recently, the European parliament passed historic reforms to help the severely depleted fish stock. Going against significant opposition from the industry and the governments of France and Spain, several groups including Avaaz.org, Greenpeace, Oceans 2012, and the Pew Environment Trust led a massive lobbying effort to convince members of the European Parliament to vote in favour of sustainable fishing reforms. Their widespread petitioning and lobbying efforts helped to turn the tide in support of new measures.