Article

Birds of a feather petition together? Characterizing e-petitioning through the lens of platform data

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Abstract

E-petitioning platforms are increasingly popular in Western democracies and considered by some lawmakers and scholars to enhance citizen participation in political decision-making. In addition to social media and other channels for informal political communication, online petitioning is regarded as both a useful instrument to afford citizens a more important role in the political process and allow them to express support for issues which they find relevant. Building on existing pre-internet systems, e-petitioning websites are increasingly implemented to make it easier and faster to set up and sign petitions. However, little attention has so far been given to the relationship between different styles of usage and the causes supported by different groups of users. The functional difference between signing paper-based petitions vs. doing so online is especially notable with regard to users who sign large numbers of petitions. To characterize this relationship, we examine the intensity of user participation in the German Bundestag’s online petitioning platform through the lens of platform data collected over a period of five years, and conduct an analysis of highly active users and their political preferences. We find that users who sign just a single petition favor different policy areas than those who sign many petitions on a variety of issues. We conclude our analysis with observations on the potential of behavioral data for assessing the dynamics of online participation, and suggest that quantity (the number of signed petitions) and quality (favored policy areas) need more systematic joint assessment.

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... Research has consistently differentiated between government, non-governmental/NFP, and commercial platforms (Wright 2015b). A great deal of attention has been paid to governmental sites such as the 'Downing Street' petitions in the UK (Wright 2012), 'We the People' site in the US (Dumas et al. 2015), and the petitions site of the Bundestag (Puschmann, Bastos, and Schmidt 2017). Another important distinction is between organisation-led online petitions (such as those pioneered by online campaigning organisations MoveOn, Avaaz and GetUp) and citizen-created petitions. ...
... We will also not use the term clicktivism to describe online petition engagement due to the continuing pejorative connotations; and do not want to confuse the analysis, as we are studying an online petition platform with the unit of analysis being petitions, and individual actions being mobilised within that context. Second, another thread of recent research focuses on petitioners 2 as the unit of analysis (see Jungherr and Jürgens 2010;Puschmann, Bastos, and Schmidt 2017). Here scholars puzzle over what proportion of all signatures are accounted for by a small number of 'super participants' (Graham and Wright 2014). ...
... We chose not to strictly apply the actual numerical thresholds in the work of others, simply because as the time periods included in studies varies so too will the utility of thresholds. Wehave a larger data set than Puschmann, Bastos, and Schmidt (2017), and the top and tail of our distribution is of a different magnitude. ...
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Online petitions are an important feature of contemporary political engagement in advanced democracies. In this paper we report on a unique data set – covering a five year period and over 17,000 petitions – documenting the development of the Change.org platform in Australia. Australia presents an interesting case as, until very recently, there was no national government hosted online petition site. Our analysis results in three findings that advance scholarship on online petitions. First, we find the majority of petitions are in fact targeted at government, and that their issue area is of a political nature. Second, we find that most signers of petitions sign a single petition – they are not serial participants. Finally, we show that ‘super users’ of the online petition system engage broadly as well as often. Together these findings demonstrate that online petition creation and signing – even on commercial platforms – is a distinct and important part of citizen engagement in politics.
... Many studies focus just on petitions' participatory potential, such as Mosca and Santucci (2009). Also, within this axis, Wright (2012) assesses Downing Street's potential as a democratic good, Yasseri et al (2017) explore the dynamics of online mobilisation of e-petitions, whereas Jungherr and Jürgens (2010), Riehm (2011) andPuschmann et al (2017) are but three examples of studies analysing the characteristics of petitioners and signatories, investigating whether e-petitioning has led to different participation patterns. Implicit in this plethora of studies is an assumption about the roles performed by petitioning, but no discussion of these. ...
... Proposal 6: The research needs for empirical work 1. There has been increasing interest towards online petition systems in political science [9,80,108,109] and at SIGCHI community [48,67]. The work on political science community has highlighted the importance of petitions not for changing the policy but to change the political agenda and inform citizens [9,109]. ...
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This is a manuscript I'm working to map the HCI work touching democratic decision making. Ask me for access to the full paper ;) Political events throughout the Western societies have created great concerns about the sustainability and stability of the society. How can the SIGCHI community address part of these concerns in the digital society? A systematic literature review on SIGCHI's work on democracy, politics and civic topics is conducted. After limiting the review to topics related to political decision making, a total of 46 papers were reviewed. Following findings can be summarized. The published papers focused more on developing new systems and practices and less on observations and case studies. Roughly equal number of papers advocated liberal-individualist and deliberative models of democracy. These findings demonstrate the need for further integration of political science knowledge, such as the work on democratic innovations, to the field of SIGCHI. At the same time, the political science community could apply the design-driven research to rethink the e-democracy systems developed.
... Wright, 2015b) but researchers are beginning to use such systems as a source of secondary data analysis (Briassoulis, 2010) and to undertake computational social science investigations (Jungherr & Theocharis, 2017). Uses have included examining the lifecycle of e-petitions (Yasseri, Hale, & Margetts, 2013), the pattern of engagement with e-petitions (Huang, Suh, Hill, & Hsieh, 2015;Puschmann, Bastos, & Schmidt, 2016), analysis of e-petition text ; the initial support (C. Dumas et al., 2015a) and triggered counter response (C. ...
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The United Kingdom’s 2016 referendum on membership of the European Union is perhaps one of the most important recent electoral events in the UK. This political sentiment has confounded pollsters, media commentators and academics alike, and has challenged elected Members of the Westminster Parliament. Unfortunately, for many areas of the UK this referendum outcome is not known for Westminster Parliamentary Constituencies, rather it is known for the coarser geography of counting areas. This study uses novel data and machine learning algorithms to estimate the Leave vote percentage for these constituencies. The results are seen to correlate well with other estimates.
... This latter point was re-enforced in a follow-up study using more recent UK e-petition data that suggested an e-petition's fate in terms of popularity was decided in the first 24 h of its launch (Yasseri et al., 2017). Beyond the sheer popularity of some epetitions, Puschmann, Bastos, and Schmidt (2016) investigate the behaviour of signatories of e-petitions, identifying classes of signers. These range from "Singletons" who signed just one e-petition through to the "Hyperactive" who contributed nearly 10% of signatures but made up just 0.1% of signatories. ...
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Many legislators around the word are offering the use of web based e-petitioning platforms to allow their electorate to influence government policy and action. A popular e-petition can gain much coverage, both in traditional media and social media. The task then becomes how to understand what features may make an e-petition popular and hence, potentially influential. One area of investigation is the linguistic and topical content of the supporting e-petition text. This study takes an existing methodology previously applied to the American government's e-petition platform and replicates the study for the United Kingdom's equivalent platform. This allows an insight into not only the United Kingdom's e-petition process but also a comparison with a similar platform. We find that when assessing an e-petition's popularity, the control variables are significant in both countries, e-petitions in the United Kingdom are more popular if some named entities are used in the text, and that topics are commonly more influential in America.
... Many studies focus just on petitions' participatory potential, such as Mosca and Santucci (2009). Also, within this axis, Wright (2012) assesses Downing Street's potential as a democratic good, Yasseri et al (2017) explore the dynamics of online mobilisation of e-petitions, whereas Jungherr and Jürgens (2010), Riehm (2011) andPuschmann et al (2017) are but three examples of studies analysing the characteristics of petitioners and signatories, investigating whether e-petitioning has led to different participation patterns. Implicit in this plethora of studies is an assumption about the roles performed by petitioning, but no discussion of these. ...
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Legislatures around the world are experimenting with online petitions as a means of enabling the public to express policy preferences. In many countries they have attracted an extraordinarily large number of signatories, but it is often unclear what, if anything, they achieve. This article addresses this important question through an analysis of the UK Parliament’s e-petitions system. Drawing on a review of historical and comparative research, it develops a new analytical framework which identifies four potential types of roles - linkage, campaigning, scrutiny and policy. Our study shows that although a large proportion of e-petitions to the UK Parliament are rejected and only a very small number lead to action, they nevertheless play an important role. Some have performed campaigning or scrutiny roles, but their primary effect has been to facilitate public engagement.
... Dalton, 2004;Norris, 2011), legislatures worldwide are developing new participatory mechanisms to promote greater engagement with representative institutions and to provide additional opportunities for citizens to influence policymaking. Perhaps the most popular innovation is the parliamentary e-petition and a burgeoning body of scholarship has provided important insights concerning the scale of use (Escher and Riehm, 2017;Puschmann et al., 2017), the petitioner experience (Bochel, 2016;Carman, 2010;Leston-Bandeira, 2019;Wright, 2012), and the extent that petitioning bridges the democratic divide (Asher et al. 2019;Åström et al. 2017;Carman 2014;Linder and Riehm 2011). Nonetheless, relatively little is known about whether political elites are listening to petitioners. ...
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Responding to the crisis of democracy, legislatures worldwide are developing new participatory mechanisms to promote parliamentary engagement and provide additional opportunities for citizens to influence policymaking. Yet despite the prevalence of such initiatives, little is known about whether political elites are receptive to public input. This article addresses this important gap, presenting original research that examines the e-petition system in the United Kingdom’s national legislature. It demonstrates significant apathy – on occasion, antipathy – on the part of Westminster’s elected MPs. In particular, it reveals concerns that parliamentary e-petitions risk undermining the relationship between MPs and their constituents; inundating the parliamentary agenda with immediate, but not necessarily important, issues; and exacerbating misunderstandings of the parliamentary process. More broadly, political elites remain sceptical about the capacity of parliamentary e-petitions to address the democratic divide, with a widespread sense that e-petitions often amplify the voices of those who already shout the loudest.
... Puschmann et al. analyse the content of petitions submitted to the German Bundestag and find different policy issues attract signatures from different types of signatories. Some issues, like 'Labour' and 'Transport', are dominated by signatories who have signed many petitions whilst others, like 'Science', are dominated by 'sporadic' signatories (Puschmann, Bastos, and Schmidt 2017). Hagen et al. report a similar result studying petitions submitted to the USA government. ...
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In this paper we analyze Twitter as a news channel in which the network of followers and followees significantly corresponds with the message content. We classified our data into twelve topics analogous to traditional newspaper sections and investigated whether the spread of information depend- ed upon the Twitter network of followers and followees. To test this, we mapped the social network related to each topic and calculated the occurrence of retweet and mention messages whose senders and receivers were interconnected as followers and followees. We found that on average 10% of retweets (RT-messages) and 5% of direct mentions between users (AT-messages) in Twitter hashtags are sent and received by users interconnected as followers and followees. These figures vary considerably from topic to topic, ranging from 15%-19% within Technology, Special Events and Politics to 3%-5% within the categories Personalities and Twitter-Idioms. The results show that hard-news messages are retweeted by a considerably larger community of users interconnected as followers and followees. We then per- formed a statistical correlation analysis of the dataset to validate the classification of hashtag in news sections based on retweet connectivity.
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Petitioning is a well established form of political participation in most liberal democracies. Yet, little is known about petitioners, their socio-demographics, motivations and assessments of petitioning processes. After the German parliament had introduced public e-petitions which are submitted, signed and discussed on the Internet in 2005, a survey of 571 traditional as well as 350 e-petitioners was carried out in 2007 as a part of a comprehensive evaluation study of the Office of Technology Assessment at the German Parliament (TAB). The results indicate that both petitioner samples are characterised by an above average level of general political participation and Internet use. Users of the e-petition system are younger than traditional petitioners, but the group continues to be dominated by men and those with higher levels of formal education to the same degree as among traditional petitioners. According to our findings, the Internet-based participation channel e-petitioning seems to amplify existing inequalities in participation patterns as they predominately attract highly mobilised and politically active individuals with a disproportionately high socio-economic status. Preliminary results of an ongoing follow-up study by and large confirm this conclusion.
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This study addresses 3 research questions in the context of online political discussions: What is the distribution of successful topic starting practices, what characterizes the content of large thread-starting messages, and what is the source of that content? A 6-month analysis of almost 40,000 authors in 20 political Usenet newsgroups identified authors who received a disproportionate number of replies. We labeled these authors “discussion catalysts.” Content analysis revealed that 95 percent of discussion catalysts' messages contained content imported from elsewhere on the web, about 2/3 from traditional news organizations. We conclude that the flow of information from the content creators to the readers and writers continues to be mediated by a few individuals who act as filters and amplifiers.
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Electronic petitions can serve as an influential mechanism for political participation. We present a study on the dynamics in the German e-petition system which was introduced in late 2008. Drawing on a data set of signatures, we analyze four aspects: (a) the types of petitions found, (b) the temporal dynamics of petitions, (c) the types of users found, and (d) the intersection of different petitions' supporter populations. We present evidence that (a) the system is dominated by a very small number of high-volume petitions and (b) these high-volume petitions have a delayed boosting effect on the base activity in the petition system. We furthermore (c) present a typology of users, showing that although highly active “new lobbyists” and “hit-and-run activists” exist, one- or two-time petitioners have the largest impact. Finally, it is indicated that (d) many of the high-volume petitions share a significant part of their user base, hinting at a complex, topically motivated network of supporters. Through the application of methods from what has been called “Computational Social Sciences,” we illuminate a highly relevant field of political behavior online, while demonstrating the capability of data-driven approaches in such novel domains.
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Twitter is a microblogging website where users read and write millions of short messages on a variety of topics every day. This study uses the context of the German federal election to investigate whether Twitter is used as a forum for political deliberation and whether online messages on Twitter validly mirror offline political sentiment. Using LIWC text analysis software, we conducted a contentanalysis of over 100,000 messages containing a reference to either a political party or a politician. Our results show that Twitter is indeed used extensively for political deliberation. We find that the mere number of messages mentioning a party reflects the election result. Moreover, joint mentions of two parties are in line with real world political ties and coalitions. An analysis of the tweets' political sentiment demonstrates close correspondence to the parties' and politicians' political positions indicating that the content of Twitter messages plausibly reflects the offline political landscape. We discuss the use of microblogging message content as a valid indicator of political sentiment and derive suggestions for further research. Copyright © 2010, Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (www.aaai.org). All rights reserved.
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