December 27, 2012

The White House Online Petition Joke Has Worn Thin

Back at the beginning of September last year, when the White House announced their upcoming "We the People" e-petition system to great fanfare, it was heralded in many quarters as a shining example of e-democracy in action, a force for the people to influence the federal government in an organized and logical manner like none that had been available previously.

I'll admit I was highly skeptical. At the time, in Worse than useless award: White House launches "e-petition" system, I declared the project essentially a publicity stunt that would not actually affect policy, but could be easily manipulated through its rudimentary sign-up system -- it seemed obvious that it couldn't even provide statistically meaningful polling data.

It turns out I was not entirely correct. The White House e-petition system hasn't proven itself to only be useless, but to be something of sick joke as well, making itself a global laughingstock on what seems like an almost daily basis now.

There were early signs that this would be the case, when the focus of petitions initially seemed to focus on drug legalization. Think what you will about the topic, it's obvious that almost any group can pull together vast numbers of "signatures" (representing real people or not) for such a petition, and it's also clear that its impact on actual policy would be essentially zero.

The White House, which originally promised to respond promptly to petitions once they crossed 5,000 "signatures" in 30 days, quickly raised that threshold to 25,000, and then established a common modus operandi of not responding to many petitions substantively for longer periods -- even after that threshold was reached (indeed, they had said they would respond, not exactly when they would respond).

But it's hard to blame them for such reticence to engage, given how the petition system quickly spun off into the fodder for late night comedians, as every interest group in the country organized tens of thousands of their minions to sign an increasingly bizarre set of petitions -- and that's not even counting the folks for whom the entire petitions process was specifically for laughs.

So we've now seen "We the People" e-petitions gather large numbers of signatures calling for Texas to be permitted to secede from the nation, for the USA to build a "Death Star" like that from the "Star Wars" film series, to deport CNN host Piers Morgan because he spoke out forcefully in favor of gun regulations, and now to arrest NBC "Meet the Press" host David Gregory because he showed on air (with police permission) an empty 30 round ammo clip during an interview that was generally seen to be embarrassing to NRA executive VP Wayne LaPierre (the latter two petitions being pushed by fringe components of the gun lobby, apparently).

But it's the White House that really should be embarrassed at this point. It's clear that the worst predictions about the petition system have not only come true, but been far exceeded.

"We the People" has become a focal point for snarky jokesters and pressure groups not to change policy, but rather to try capture media attention. Perhaps worse, when topics crucial to our future like the gun policy debate are brought up in this context, we see that it's done in ways that are so asinine that they don't actually advance the meaningful arguments of anyone on either side of such complex matters.

Most of this ends up making the White House look like a willing partner in the jokes, and the jokes just aren't funny anymore. There are too many important issues at stake.

As far as I'm concerned, there should be only one more White House e-petition -- calling for the immediate shutdown of the "We the People" petition system itself, and an end to what has become a humiliating farce.

That's one e-petition I'd be willing to happily sign.


Posted by Lauren at December 27, 2012 09:24 AM | Permalink
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