More than 300,000 people have signed an online petition calling on President Trump to release his tax returns. Before you roll your eyes, it’s not just something that’s going around on Facebook. It’s on the White House’s own website. The idea behind the “We the People” platform launched by the Obama administration is to make government more accountable by opening a purportedly direct line of communication to the president. Despite the change in administrations, the site is still up, running, and gaining more signatures. So petitioners–realistically or not–are hoping for a response.
In the case of his tax returns, Trump has responded, at least indirectly. Spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway said that he would not release his returns, though she later walked back the refusal. So does that mean the petition … worked?
Signing an online petition can seem like a feeble substitute for actual IRL activism–that’s why critics call it “slacktivism.” But even though typing in your name and email is a pretty minimal show of effort, it might not be totally meaningless. Under the We the People system, any petition that reaches 100,000 signatures receives an official response, and that’s a potentially powerful thing, at least if Trump doesn’t discontinue the system. The mistake online petitions’ detractors make is seeing petitions as end points. Like most protests, they’re really quantifiable displays of concern and support, which organizers can use to further their cause.
Petitioning the US government is hard, no matter what platform you’re working with. “Online petitions on Change.org–one of the largest petition websites in the US–tend to have lower chance to succeed if the petition target is a US government agency,” says Shuyuan Deng, an information technology expert at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee’s Lubar School of Business. “And on We the People, even if a petition gets reviewed, the government tends to take no action.” According to Deng, online petitions related to human and civil rights tend to garner more support than those addressing something drier like, say, the economy. Either way, an outpouring of enthusiasm doesn’t necessarily translate into policy change.
Not that We the People petitioners are always gunning for new laws. “Over the last five years, it’s been a way to troll the White House–just for lolz,” says Christopher Koopman, a senior researcher at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, who has been following the site’s activity. And yeah, we do have We the People to thank for the White House taking an official stance on why they weren’t going to spend taxpayers funds on building a Death Star or deporting Justin Bieber.
But the 300,000 people demanding President Trump’s tax returns aren’t joking, and neither are the more than 92,000 calling for POTUS to divest from his business assets or put them in a blind trust. “They seem to be missing the usual snark,” Koopman says. “If this past weekend is any indication, maybe folks only casually interested in policy debates are now looking at them more seriously.”
The requests these petitions make of Trump have more in common with productive examples the Obama administration identified as success stories, like the petitions that resulted in President Obama signing a bill that made it illegal for carriers to lock cellphones, or changing his mind about asking states to ban using so-called gay conversion therapy on minors. “We don’t know how many were indirectly effective, either,” says Yu Hao Lee, a professor of media and information studies at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications. “After the Sandy Hook shooting, there were many petitions, and legislators used those numbers as evidence that this was an issue people desperately cared about.”
Congress members and lawyers could do the same with the tax return petition and use the upwelling of interest to pressure Trump into taking action. At 300,000 signatures, it’s the fifth-most popular petition in the platform’s history. (Those other petitions ranged from asking the White House to recognize the Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group to asking Obama to appear on Bill Maher’s show.) And despite the petitions’ tendency towards silliness, numbers clearly matter. “That’s pretty much what collective action is about,” Lee says. “If you think about the Women’s March, what direct effect did it have? The sheer number of people is power in itself.”
We the People petitions–and online petitions in general–can be an effective way to raise awareness about an issue, and a cost-free way to make a show of support. But it’s impossible to know whether the Trump administration will honor the system. Quite likely it won’t: “When President Obama created this site, it was new way to interact with the public,” says Paul Hitlin, a senior reseacher at the Pew Research Center who has studied the We the People platform. “President Trump uses Twitter.” Still, the legacy of the We the People system won’t disappear overnight, especially since the sight and its petitions are still active. It’s easy for Trump not to release his tax returns. But it’s hard for him not to respond.