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The researchers focussed on the digital traces left by tiny acts of political participation to find clues for why movements or campaigns snowball into significant collective action while others quickly fail. They found that the catalysts for political action have changed – with the personality types of those involved playing more of a part than demographics or charismatic political leadership. Drawing on large-scale, internet data, they linked it to global, real-world events and movements through conducting a series of laboratory, field and natural experiments. They analysed acts such as signing a petition, donating money to a political cause, supporting or liking or sharing something on Facebook, tweeting or retweeting political messages, news, photographs and videos.
According to their analysis, an online petition seems to need to attract support within 10 hours if it is not going to crumble into digital dust. Between 2011 and 2015, around 97% of petitions started on the UK government petition site failed to attract even 500 signatures, with less than 0.1% reaching the 100,000 mark set for parliamentary debate. Only a handful of petitions on this site received millions of signatures, bringing real policy change on issues from road pricing and the privatisation of forests to immigration.
This finding was replicated across all the countries and platforms studied by the researchers, with huge numbers of failed petitions and a tiny fraction of dramatic successes. Most tweets or Facebook posts that urge political action or spoke of political preferences are shared by no-one. Yet the most successful initiatives show a meteoric rise seemingly from nowhere, such as the UK petition calling for Donald Trump to be barred from the UK was signed by more than 500,000 people in a matter of days leading to a debate in parliament.