Death to the Online Petition

Shawty Lo Reality Show Cancelled
They never should have given y'all online petitions. In recent weeks, my annoyance with certain digital organizing tactics has reached its peak. These petitions, in particular facilitate offline victories, but now they also symbolize faux activism. Signing and circulating online petitions about every real or imagined indignity reflects the entitlement of the Internet Era. Everyone has a right to be personally offended. Thankfully the web provides a space for us to voice our concerns, but does every grievance necessitate a “movement?” And does every “movement” deserve attention?

Admittedly, I've signed a few online petitions. I've even started a couple, but I'm starting to regret participating in a spiraling cultural phenomenon wherein everyone feels as though their concerns are the most important. Without vetting or deep exploration, the rallying feels like empty gesture. We are creating more noise than change.

E-petition Culture represents digital populism. Everyone can play a part, no matter how small, in consciousness raising. Individuals can bring to light injustices and misdeeds of major corporations and large institutions. Many worthy and worthwhile causes need the Internet to raise awareness and garner support. This is a great development, in theory, but having no gatekeepers results in wasted time and energy at the top and the bottom.

In September 2011, for example, the Obama Administration created a place on its website that enabled citizens to create petitions. The White House vowed to respond to all those that received 5,000 signatures in 30 days. Then the threshold was raised to 25,000 and now it's at 100,000. Once again, the President and his staff bridge the digital and the political, but a part of me wonders just how much time White House policy experts spend reviewing petitions to deport Piers Morgan, secede from the union or build a Death Star.

Even if the White House does nothing with the petitions, which seems likely, these ridiculous queries still dominate the news. While we're discussing and debating causes of questionable import, more pressing issues are neglected. In this sensational media landscape, “the will of the people” gets reduced to that which generates the most pageviews, comments, and likes. That's the danger of E-petition Culture.

Those who care about social justice should also be worried about the culture's superficiality. People indiscriminately lending their name and support to causes diminishes the meaningfulness of the gesture. An e-signature is not a revolutionary act. This is the shallow end of political advocacy--only a few steps above total apathy. And when these petitions are victorious, is the sense of accomplishment signees feel warranted? Did we really do anything? We're concerned enough to sign a petition, write an op-ed or even attend a rally, but by and large we make no sacrifices. Perhaps that's a sign of our progress, or maybe it reflects our detachment.

Though most outspoken organizers may be motivated by earnest concern, there's an equal amount of moral grandstanding. 

Recent, rallying against reality television shows sent me over the edge. These social media campaigns to end “embarrassing” images feel regressive. Yesterday, Oxygen confirmed it will not air Shawty Lo's reality show “All My Babies' Mamas.” The decision came after a successful campaign against the show which included a petition that gained nearly 40,000 signatures. Before the cancellation, online activist Sabrina Lamb explained, “We will not support any network and advertiser which exploits the plight of children and targets young women with stereotypical, dangerous, unsafe messages.”

The 13 minute teaser sent the “respectable” men and women of Black America into a frenzy. These petitions are not fighting for the improved conditions of black women or black families, they're championing the erasure of their stories. According to Lamb, the airing of an atypical Black family presents a threat. But for whom? The social media vigilantes are more occupied with what “they” would say about women and their children. It's fascinating to see Black women fall over themselves arguing that the decision to air a show about a man with 11 children by 10 women must be the result of abject racism because the situation isn't peculiar–that Black women's pathological reproduction makes this a normal occurrence. It seems we are just as good at perpetuating those myths as “they” are.

I, personally, do not believe structural racism is undergirded by reality television. Moreover, even the “worst” representations of Women of Color on reality shows provide teachable moments. Viewers can use these shows as tool to reflect on our own lives and decisions. Few will admit that these real stories  inspire self-reflection just as fictional ones do. I may watch television especially closely, but the implication is that other young Black women are too dumb to do the same. That offends me.

The social issues reflected on reality television will not be solved by blocking the airing of one program or starting a movement that effectively pits “good black women” against the “bad.” E-petition Culture flattens complex structural issues into easily shareable publicity-bait, even those who should know better are falling for it.


Any frustrations I have with the paradigm are mediated by the real successes of digital advocacy. Black social media activists have created, from the root, an effective counter-public space and can count several victories--most notably the cases of the Jena 6 and Trayvon Martin. (Though one day we'll need to discuss the clear gender disparity in these campaigns.) Digital organizing can compel biased institutions to act in the interest of justice. For that reason, it is necessary.

We are, however, witnessing a troubling shift in culture. If only there were a screening process.  Although I am annoyed by the rising E-petition Culture, there is no objective way to distinguish legitimate concerns from the oppressive, malicious or imagined. The line is so thin as to be imperceptible; thus, we will just have to endure all of the seemingly pointless and ultimately fruitless causes so that we will not miss those that truly demand action. I do not like it, but these are the times.

Deeper Than Reality TV: It's Not About a Rapper or His Babies' Mamas

Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor of For Harriet. Email or Tweet her.

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