Rapid rise and decay in petition signing
Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, 1 St Giles’, Oxford, OX1 3JS, UK
* e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Accepted: 17 August 2017
Published online: 29 August 2017
Contemporary collective action, much of which involves social media and other Internet-based platforms, leaves a digital imprint which may be harvested to better understand the dynamics of mobilization. Petition signing is an example of collective action which has gained in popularity with rising use of social media and provides such data for the whole population of petition signatories for a given platform. This paper tracks the growth curves of all 20,000 petitions to the UK government petitions website (http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk) and 1,800 petitions to the US White House site (https://petitions.whitehouse.gov), analyzing the rate of growth and outreach mechanism. Previous research has suggested the importance of the first day to the ultimate success of a petition, but has not examined early growth within that day, made possible here through hourly resolution in the data. The analysis shows that the vast majority of petitions do not achieve any measure of success; over 99 percent fail to get the 10,000 signatures required for an official response and only 0.1 percent attain the 100,000 required for a parliamentary debate (0.7 percent in the US). We analyze the data through a multiplicative process model framework to explain the heterogeneous growth of signatures at the population level. We define and measure an average outreach factor for petitions and show that it decays very fast (reducing to 0.1% after 10 hours in the UK and 30 hours in the US). After a day or two, a petition’s fate is virtually set. The findings challenge conventional analyses of collective action from economics and political science, where the production function has been assumed to follow an S-shaped curve.
Key words: petitions / collective action / e-democracy / big data / popularity dynamics / social contagion / multiplicative process
© The Author(s), 2017