December 28, 2016

‘We the People’: Five Years of Online Petitions

3. Most common petition subjects

In addition to measuring the overall volume of petitions on “We the People,” Pew Research Center also conducted a content analysis to determine which issues resonated with users of the site.4 This analysis finds that a few broad issues – such as health, foreign policy, or requests pertaining to a specific person or action – are relatively common. At the same time, users chose a wide variety of topics to address.

Petitions pertaining to the health care system and disease awareness accounted for two of the three most-popular categories

The most popular subject involved improving the U.S. health care system. A total of 371 petitions (representing 8% of the archived total over the period of this study) focused on this topic.

Many of those were broad in nature, such as the 2012 petition asking to repeal Obamacare because it had been “killing jobs.” That petition received more than 64,000 signatures and received a White House response entitled, “Obamacare isn’t going anywhere, and that’s a good thing.”

Others focused on more specific issues, such as a March 2013 petition asking to allow advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) to practice medicine without the supervision of a physician.

In addition, 6% of petitions dealt with specific illnesses. Many of these aimed at increasing awareness or funding for research for a wide variety of diseases, such as cancer (38 petitions), autism (20), Ebola (19) and obesity (16).

Many petitions focused on a single individual or proposed a specific action by the government

A total of 239 petitions (5%) involved authors asking the White House to honor an individual or create a national holiday. Examples include a request to award baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his military service and educational activism and requests to make the Lunar New Year or the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha national holidays.

A slightly smaller number of petitions (235) asked the White House to investigate criminal cases. For example, one of the earliest petitions asked to investigate allegations of prosecutorial misconduct in the case against Sholom Rubashkin, a former CEO of an Iowa meat plant convicted of bank fraud in 2009. And more than 39,000 people signed a petition to investigate the government of Honduras for potential embezzlement of public funds.

Other common types of petitions included requests for the dismissal or punishment of public officials (185), appeals for presidential pardons (134) and requests for changes to national symbols such as the U.S. currency or flag (75). There were also 36 petitions that called for the impeachment or investigation of Barack Obama for his actions related to issues such as Libya and immigration.

Middle East, Russia/Ukraine top list of foreign policy petitions

International subjects made up a sizable portion of all the petitions created: Nearly one-quarter of involved U.S. foreign policy in some manner (24%, or 1,171 petitions), while the remaining 76% of petitions were solely focused on domestic matters.

Three particular issues stand out in these foreign policy petitions. Taken collectively, 169 petitions focused on the Middle East. These petitions ranged from calls to freeze all aid to Israel to a request for the president to pledge there will be no military intervention in Syria.

Russia and Ukraine accounted for 129 total petitions, making it the second-most common international policy area. China followed with 97 individual petitions, more than three times the number that mentioned next largest subject (Japan, mentioned in 31 petitions).

Other topics of interest were wide-ranging

The remainder of the leading topics contained a wide mix of domestic and foreign subjects. Some focused on popular, high-profile issues such as education, taxes and terrorism. Others, however, were subjects that demonstrate the ability of small, yet focused, groups of engaged citizens to use the site to create a dialogue about shared interests. A selection of some of the more popular or unique topics includes:

Military and veterans’ issues

The second-most popular subject overall involved issues related to the armed forces (6%). Many of these petitions focused on benefits for current and former military personnel. For example, several aimed at reinstating Military Tuition Assistance programs, which faced cuts during the 2013 budget sequestration. Others included requests to allow military personnel to carry concealed weapons on military bases.

Religious issues

Religious controversies accounted for 142 petitions (3% of the total). Several petitions aimed at revoking the tax exempt status of religious institutions, while a 2012 petition asked the White House to “Stand up for the rights of endangered Christian minorities around the world this Christmas season.”

Technology and the internet

Issues related to regulating the internet and other forms of technology also made up 3% of all petitions. For example, two separate 2011 petitions objected to legislation dealing with online piracy known as SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (the PROTECT IP Act). Both petitions met the signature threshold, and the White House issued a single response arguing that, “Any effort to combat online piracy must guard against the risk of online censorship of lawful activity and must not inhibit innovation by our dynamic businesses large and small.”

Other petitions aimed at limiting pornography on the web and preventing device makers from making a “backdoor” method for the government to access citizens’ data.

LBGTQ+ issues

Some 3% of the petitions dealt with issues related to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) Americans. Most aimed at expanding rights for members of that community. For example, a January 2015 petition requested the ban of all LGBTQ+ conversion therapies, and multiple petitions requested the government legally recognize nonbinary genders.

Marijuana and the war on drugs

Petitions about marijuana and the war on drugs in general were the focus of 132 petitions (3%). More than 100 of those involved requests to either legalize marijuana or grant clemency for individuals arrested for breaking marijuana laws.

White nationalism

Another 3% of petitions focused on opposition to racial diversity and often referred to what the authors called “white genocide” or “pro-white” issues. None of these petitions reached the signature threshold to generate a White House response. Most of them featured similar language, suggesting that many were written by a small group of individuals. For example, a December 2012 petition asked to “stop white genocide, by halting massive third world immigration and forced assimilation in white countries,” while a separate petition created the same month asked the president to establish a “national white genocide day.”

2016 presidential campaign

The 2016 presidential campaign was the subject of 2% of petitions. During the first six months of 2016, there were 14 aimed at the controversy surrounding Hillary Clinton’s emails during her time as Secretary of State. One such petition was entitled “Complete and release the criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton before the Democratic National Convention.” Others called on President Obama to refrain from ever pardoning Clinton for criminal activity.

Pop culture and celebrities

Although not among the 25 largest subjects covered, entertainment issues were the subjects of 63 petitions (1%). Some of these petitions involved areas that were in the purview of the White House, such as the request to revoke the Presidential Medal of Freedom from comedian Bill Cosby following allegations of sexual assault.

Many others, however, were focused on topics that were far afield from issues the White House generally focuses on. In 2013, for example, more than 4,000 signatures appeared on a petition requesting to “Give Nicolas Cage the Declaration of Independence” – a reference to the actor’s role in the 2004 movie “National Treasure.” In 2015, 2,430 people signed a petition asking to formally declare the birthday of singer Beyoncé a national holiday.

Petitioners perceive ‘We the People’ as a place to defend civil rights

As users create petitions on the “We the People” site, they have the opportunity to choose up to three tags to categorize their petitions. The list of approximately 20 labels was created by the “We the People” staff and has changed over time.5 Each petitioner can choose his or her own tags, and the site does not provide definitions for these labels and categories. However, these tags offer an insight into how the petitioners perceived the goals of their efforts.

In particular, petitioners were much more likely to choose tags pertaining to civil rights or human rights than any other categories: Nearly half of all petitions (48%) were assigned tags pertaining to these issues by the authors.6 By comparison, criminal justice reform (the second-most popular tag) was used on 16% of all petitions, while foreign policy (the third-most popular) appeared on 14% of petitions.

Authors viewed a wide range of subjects as relating to civil or human rights. For example, the tag “civil rights & equality” was used on a request to abolish standardize testing in schools but also on a petition to give trained service cats the same status as service dogs or horses.

The 10 most-popular individual petitions focused on a mix of small groups, pop culture and international affairs

An examination of the ten individual petitions with the largest number of signatures reveals that several focused on local issues or small groups rather than large organizations or issues of obvious national impact.

For instance, A March 2016 petition asking the government to investigate accusations of voter fraud in the Arizona Democratic primary was the ninth-most signed petition in the history of the site. And the single most popular petition in the site’s history sought to “Legally recognize Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group.” The church, based in Kansas, had drawn national attention for its public protests and opposition to homosexuality. The White House’s response to this petition was unique. Their statement began by affirming their right to choose not to comment on issues of law enforcement – as they had done in a number of statements. But the response continued to state a general opposition to protests at funerals of veterans and included a graphic that showed where the signatures for this particular petition originated.

Other highly popular petitions involved the fate of a single individual who had gained notoriety in popular culture. The fourth-most signed petition was actively promoted by comedian Bill Maher as he encouraged Obama to appear on his television talk show. Canadian pop star Justin Bieber was the focus of the fifth-ranked petition, an effort to revoke his green card due to his “dangerous, reckless, destructive, and drug abusing” behavior. And the seventh-most signed petition was a request to extradite a Minnesotan dentist named Walter James Palmer for the killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe.

Several top petitions focused on international subjects or U.S. foreign affairs, such as a March 2015 petition (the third-most popular) requesting that 47 senators be charged “in violation of the Logan Act in attempting to undermine a nuclear agreement” with the Iranian government.

In some instances, the foreign subjects discussed were ones that had not received much attention within the U.S. The second-most signed petition pertained to a territorial conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over a region known as the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. The sixth-most signed petition involved Phra Dhammajayo, a Buddhist monk in Thailand accused of money laundering. And the eighth-highest petition involved accusations of election fraud in Malaysia.

Although it generated little initial attention, one petition helped lead to a meeting with the president and a viral video

Virginia McLaurin, a 106-year-old black woman living in Washington, D.C., created a petition on “We the People” in December 2014. In it, she stated that she did not expect to live to see a “colored president” and requested a meeting with Obama.

“I know you are a busy man, but I wish I could meet you,” McLaurin wrote. “I could come to your house to make things easier.”

The petition was part of a small social media campaign to get McLaurin to the White House that also included a YouTube video.

At the time, the petition received virtually no attention and only registered 19 signatures in its 30 days on the site. However, the campaign eventually achieved success through a different method.

According to the White House blog, “A friend of Mrs. McLaurin’s reached out to the White House and shared that Mrs. McLaurin has been doing stellar work as a volunteer throughout the D.C. area for decades and would like to visit the White House.”

Finally, on Feb. 18, 2016, McLaurin’s request was granted as she made a trip to the White House’s Blue Room where she met the president and first lady. The video of the meeting shows a joyous McLaurin meeting and even dancing with the Obamas. The clip was posted on the White House’s Facebook page and became a viral hit. In the first six months the video existed online, it was viewed more than 67 million times. The meeting was covered in numerous media outlets including The New York Times and CNN.

  1. In this analysis, researchers coded up to two different topics for each petition. See the methodology for details.
  2. Pew Research Center combined similar tags to simplify the final list. For example, the tags “Economy,” “Economy & Jobs” and “Job creation” were combined into a single category called “Economy and jobs.”
  3. “Civil rights” appeared as a tag on 33% of the petitions, while “human rights” appeared as a tag on 29%. There were 664 petitions (14%) that included both labels.