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How the White House's We the People E-Petition Site Became a Virtual Ghost-Town

BY Dave Karpf | Friday, June 20 2014

I spent April 2014 visiting the White House petition portal, We The People. It was quiet there. Too quiet.

Only 85 petitions were created at We The People in April. None of them came anywhere close to the 100,000 signature threshold required for a government response. Half of the petitions had fewer than 500 signatures, and 85% of them had 2,000 or fewer signatures. Even though the site is explicitly set up to let people communicate demands to the Obama Administration, 40% of the petitions were clearly outside the scope of presidential power. The three biggest petitions called on the White House to overturn the FDA restrictions on e-cigarettes, designate Russia as a State Sponsor of terrorism, and maintain net neutrality. They’ve all vanished by now – any petition that doesn’t reach the 100,000 signature threshold within a month is removed from the site.

By comparison, 2,053 petitions were created through MoveOn Petitions in April, and 7,393 petitions were launched in the U.S. through Change.org. Each of those sites featured several petitions with over 100,000 signatures. We The People might hold out the promise of government response, but if your goal includes reaching a lot of people, attracting media attention, or leveraging signatures into follow-up actions, these non-governmental sites are far superior.

There's pretty good evidence that April isn't an anomaly. The White House has previously boasted that 5.4 million people have created We The People accounts, resulting in 9.2 million signatures. That's... a bit less than 2 signatures per person. The average user is signing a single petition and then never returning again.

There does seem to be a core of repeat users, but it isn't one you'd be proud of. User "A.D.," from Berkeley, CA posts 4-5 petitions every month, all of which riff on immigration as "white genocide." These petitions get a few hundred signatures, and include an in-text link to a blog called "White Genocide Project," (nope, sorry, not gonna link to it) which proudly announces their plan to launch petitions on the site every month in order to reach other members of the "international white public." But beyond the racists and the crackpots, We The People doesn't have an active online community.

And, when you stop and think about it, that's not surprising. Change.org and MoveOn.org have learned a few key lessons that Petitions.Whitehouse.gov cannot imitate, and We The People has simultaneously given up on its one major comparative strength:

Static homepages don't draw traffic.

The homepage used to be the primary interface between an online organization and its audience. We used to "surf the web," either through google/yahoo/altavista searches or through bookmarking our favorite websites. That's not true anymore. People share stories and actions through Facebook, Twitter, and email. Less than 10% of Change.org's and MoveOn.org's signatures come via visits to the homepage.

And this isn't only true for online petition sites. Take a look at the leaked New York Times Innovation Report. The Times has found that "Only a third of our readers ever visit [the home page]. And those who do visit are spending less time: page views and minutes spent per reader dropped by double-digit percentages last year." That's 33% for the New York Times, which is about as strong of a destination brand as one could ever muster. People use social media to curate their information flows. People take action online because they clicked on a link that was shared by a friend or a trusted intermediary organization.

Vibrant Online Publics Have To Be Curated and Supported.

Change.org and MoveOn.org promote online activity through their Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and email lists. They put a lot of brainpower into determining which petitions should appear in which inboxes. (I could write a thousand words here just about MoveOn's bottom-up collaborative filtering system. Instead, let me just summarize: it's really cool.)

Companies like ShareProgress are running constant experiments, tweaking the post-signature landing pages to increase "organic social sharing" after someone has signed a petition. There's a whole nascent industry starting to emerge around social sharing and optimization. The reason why Change.org and MoveOn Petitions get so much petition activity is that they devote engineering, organizing, and media resources to promoting that activity.

Civil Society Organizations Can Make Choices that the Government Can't.

We The People does not have a Facebook page. It does not have a Twitter account. It has a very modest Twitter account. It does not send mass emails highlighting the week's "featured petitions." It certainly doesn't employ predictive analytics, sending net neutrality petitions to people who signed the petition to stop the Time Warner/Comcast merger.

And here's the trick: it shouldn't have any of those things, because it's the White House. Change.org and MoveOn.org can play favorites. They can decide which petitions are the most promising. They can encourage follow-up organizing in real space. They can partner with advocacy groups to help launch long-term campaigns. They can actively manage their online communities to promote desired forms of participation. The Executive Branch of the U.S. Government can't.

If We The People were to highlight petitions through social media and mass emails, then it would be inviting righteous outrage. When Change.org highlights a petition urging the Department of Justice to prosecute General Motors, it is making a minor value judgment about that campaign. If the White House petition site highlighted the same petition, it would create a major news story.

The White House is the target of We The People petitions and the venue for those petitions. That hamstrings the site. It can offer citizens a formal, government-sanctioned venue for launching online petitions. It can promise "we're listening." But it can't do anything more to promote or guide the conversation.

What Went Wrong? Why Did It Get So Big In the First Place?

Despite the lack of e-mail or social sharing, the White House petition site saw a steady stream of new registrants during its first couple of years. Even if most petition-signers never came back, you don't just stumble into several million registered users.

The site's early growth followed a simple formula:

(step 1) respond to interesting petitions that have crossed the signature threshold;
(step 2) reap lots of media attention from the response;
(step 3) benefit from the increased public exposure, look for more petitions that have crossed the signature threshold.

That formula worked great when the signature threshold was 5,000 and the promise of a more open, responsive government was fresh. But now that they've jacked the signature threshold to 100,000 and the site has lost its novelty, the formula has run into a couple of problems.

First, the promise of a government response has turned hollow. The White House still issues occasional petition replies. In April, they made headlines with an entertaining response to the petition to deport Justin Bieber. That reply took only three months, and pivoted to a core White House priority: immigration reform. The petition to Pardon Edward Snowden has languished for over a year, though. And the petition to investigate the role of prosecutor misconduct in the death of Aaron Swartz has now been ignored for eighteen months. The original promise that "you will receive a government response" has been reinterpreted as "you will receive a response if and when it makes us look good."

We The People petitions are basically just fodder for the White House press shop. If responding to a petition is useful for creating a positive news cycle, they make a big deal of responding to it. But these responses just serve to reaffirm publicly stated White House priorities. If you show a groundswell of support for a position or question that doesn't fit the White House's priorities, don't hold your breath waiting for an answer.

Second, 100,000 is an unrealistic threshold for genuinely new, substantive citizen proposals. The most recent responses on We The People are all to petitions that fall below that number (and make the Administration look good). Reaching 100,000 signatures on a site with no e-mail or social sharing probably requires an outside boost from another part of the Internet's "attention backbone" -- Reddit.com, for instance. If the White House isn't actually going to reply to every petition that passes the threshold, the least they could do is return to one of the older, less-intimidating thresholds (5,000 or 25,000).

The unenviable result: We The People is a virtual ghost town. People might visit once, but they never return. Partially, that's unavoidable -- there are a lot of good things that civil society organizations can do better than government. Partially, that's because their unique promise of a more open, responsive government just isn't living up to the reality. And without that promise, why would any of us pick a government platform as the best option for trying to pressure and change the government?

This post has been corrected to include an accurate reference to We the People's Twitter account.

David Karpf is an Assistant Professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. His work focuses on strategic communication practices of political associations in America, with a particular interest in Internet-related strategies.