The dark side of e-petitions? Exploring anonymous signatures
First Monday

The dark side of e-petitions? Exploring anonymous signatures by Janne Berg



Abstract
This paper analyzes anonymous political participation in the form of e-petition signing. The purpose of this study is to increase knowledge about patterns behind anonymous e-petition signing. Since online political participation evokes an important discussion about the balance between the need for transparency on the one hand, and the right for anonymity on the other hand, it is crucial to increase our knowledge of the factors affecting citizens’ choices to remain anonymous. Using quantitative content analysis of 220 informal e-petitions on the site adressit.com in Finland, this study seeks to find possible determinants for the share of anonymous signatures. Findings indicate that the type of demand presented in the e-petition is a key factor predicting the share of anonymous signatures.

Contents

Introduction
Online petitions
Petition signing and anonymity
Data and methods
Results
Discussion and conclusion

 


 

Introduction

Democracy has an ambiguous relationship with anonymity. In the most basic act of political participation, voting, our political preferences are protected by the secret ballot. In other acts of political participation, e.g., large campaign donations, the norm is transparency. Ideally, there would not be a need for political anonymity to allow us to freely express ideas without fear of attack or ridicule, but we do not live in a perfect world [1]. By studying when people choose to withhold their signatures from public scrutiny, we can gain understanding about the political behavior of citizens and the factors affecting the choice to participate in politics anonymously. This, in turn, can increase understanding of the role of anonymity in democracy, i.e., when, how and why it is used by citizens.

This article is examines the decision to withhold one’s name from public scrutiny when signing an online petition. While traditional forms of political participation are declining in numbers, new forms of political participation, driven by digital and social media, have emerged (Anduiza, et al., 2012). In particular, petition signing is becoming increasingly popular (Dalton, 2008; Riehm, et al., 2011). Starting, collecting signatures, and signing petitions is easier than ever before online. E-petitions seem to bring some hope to dystopian views due to decreasing levels of traditional political participation in Western democracies (Chadwick, 2012).

For the purpose of this paper, a petition is defined as a formal request to a higher authority, e.g., parliament or other authority, signed by one or a number of citizens (Macintosh, et al., 2002). Some regard online petitions as a new form of democratic innovation that could revive democracy, help measure public opinion, help citizens put issues on the political agenda (Jungherr and Jürgens, 2010) or serve as an entry point for greater political participation (Chadwick, 2012; Cruickshank, et al., 2010; Escher, 2011; Whyte, et al., 2005). Skeptics point to the reduced effort and cost of signing a petition online and thus classify online petitions as “meaningless” slacktivism (Breuer and Farooq, 2012; Christensen, 2011), concluding that their “transformative potential is very moderate” (Lindner and Riehm, 2009). Critics might therefore argue that anonymous e-petition signing is the ultimate form of slacktivism because it both requires just minimal effort and personal commitment. However, anonymity encourages e-petition signing by removing fear of harassment based on personal political opinions. La Raja’s (2011) findings indicate people are less likely to sign a petition if their signature will be made public on the Internet.

Green (2013) argues there is a need to study the link between privacy and petitioning online: “in a world without political obscurity [2], repercussions loom indefinitely. What is the real cost of signing petitions when doing so potentially creates a permanent record of one’s political beliefs in the everlasting memory of the Internet?” [3] Like other forms of political participation, petition signing online is linked with political anonymity. In some online petition platforms, signatures are listed in connection with the petition and thus made instantly public. Allowing e-petition signers to withhold their name from publication is a Web site design decision; the design may force signers to publish their name online (Hale, et al., 2013). In other cases, e-petition signers may choose not to reveal their name, perhaps because of the possible social consequences of supporting a political issue.

The purpose of this study is to increase knowledge about patterns behind anonymous e-petition signing. The aim of the study is investigate the link between e-petitions characteristics and signature disclosure by citizens in a representative democracy; which e-petitions characteristics have an effect on the share of anonymous signatures?

 

++++++++++

Online petitions

Online petitions can be either formal or informal (Lindner and Riehm, 2009). Petitions where citizens see a clear relationship between their participation and its outcome are more likely to lead to community empowerment (Pratchett, et al., 2009). It seems illogical to sign a petition if one does not believe it to have some impact on reaching its goals. However, signing an petition may not require too much effort by the citizen and thus does not “cost” as much as other forms of political participation, like voting or taking part in a demonstration. When political participation is reduced to providing a name and an e-mail address online, it raises questions of what effects the lowered participation costs have on the political behavior of citizens. Online petitions have a somewhat indistinct role in representative democracy as there is an ongoing debate of their effectiveness. Critics argue online petitions might lead to decreased legitimacy of democracy as the petition process often fails to reach its goals (Chadwick, 2012; Peixoto, 2013). Proponents, conversely, see online petitions as a complimentary form of participation that can help increase citizen satisfaction with democracy (Frilander and Sannikka, 2012).

Online petitions have been studied from different perspectives: successfulness/effectiveness (Cotton, 2012; Hale, et al., 2013: Wright, 2012), growth rate (Hale, et al., 2013), institutional modernization (Lindner and Riehm, 2009), cohort trends in petition signing (Caren, et al., 2011), the socio-demographics of petitioners (Lindner and Riehm, 2011), likelihood of donating money (Lee and Hsieh, 2013), anonymous dissent (Riley, 2009), connection between social media support and actual signatures (Panagiotopoulos, et al., 2011), youth culture petitioning (Earl and Schussman, 2008), privacy preservation (Diaz, et al., 2009), the introduction of the national citizens’ initiatives (Emtö, 2013), and the reasons behind petition signing (Alexander, 2009).

Signing an online petition is the most popular form of online political activity in several countries (Chadwick, 2012; Hoffman, et al., 2013; Mahendran and Cook, 2007). Most online petitions, however, fail to reach their goals and gather enough signatures to have an impact (Hale, et al., 2013; Yasseri, et al., 2013). Online petitions seem to be dependent on mass media coverage for success, thus showing the importance of actively garnering media coverage when initiating a petition (Wright, 2012). Basically, a petition’s fate is set within the first 24 hours of its introduction (Yasseri, et al., 2013). The provision of social information matters; people are more likely to sign an online petition if they know many others have done so, suggesting there is a critical mass for the success of a petition (Margetts, et al., 2009). Lindner and Riehm (2011) found that e-petitions seemed to “predominately attract highly mobilised and politically active individuals with a disproportionately high socio-economic status.” [4] Yet, scholars have not investigated the connection between e-petition characteristics and the share of anonymous signatures. Since this is unexplored territory and petitioning can be regarded as a form of political communication, I depart from Lasswell’s (1948) model of communication as a guideline for characterizing e-petitions. E-petitions will be, within this study, characterized according to who says what to whom (in which channel) with what effect. In this case, the channel will be e-petitioning and the effect will be the share of anonymous signatures. Additionally, I investigate how the message in the e-petitions is presented.

 

++++++++++

Petition signing and anonymity

“But signing a petition today brings consequences beyond public criticism. The real threat of disclosure for modern petition signers is not tangible harassment, but the loss of ‘political obscurity’ in a modern data architecture that exposes citizens to indelible Internet scrutiny and rampant political preference cataloguing.” [5]

Research by La Raja (2011) has shown that signature disclosure online discourages people from signing petitions. Due to voting secrecy, citizens can make a choice not to reveal their party choice. They cannot always make the same choice when signing an online petition. The ability to hide signers’ names from public scrutiny is a choice made by the designer of the petition site. The Internet makes spreading information about political activity easy, which means citizens should not automatically assume their actions are private. [6]

Disclosure of one’s political preferences — as in signing an online petition — might create concern about disagreement and discomfort in relations among friends, colleagues and neighbors [7]. Expressing political opinions may threaten social ties, which, in turn, gives the citizen a reason to withhold his/her opinions. Giving citizens an option to hide their signatures from online publication might therefore increase participation but at the same time, as Riley (2009) argues, decrease the legitimacy of the e-petition. Boudin (2011) argues petitions such as ballot initiatives always “should be subject to public scrutiny and disclosure” since these kinds of petitions ought to be considered as lawmaking, rather than petitions or political speech. However, all petitions are not formal enough to be considered lawmaking. Informal petitions, without an institutional link, might be closer to mere opinion expression, and thus resemble political speech more than lawmaking.

Is the social cost of signing a petition the same for all types of issues? La Raja (2011) states that the cost of supporting highly controversial issues may subject the petition signer to personal harassment from the opposition. The founding fathers of America seemed to be aware of this, given that a large part of political speech on controversial issues remained unsigned or was signed with a pen name during their time [8]. Some issues are probably more likely to result in social cost than others. If an issue is likely to result in social costs, it is rational to avoid disclosing one’s preferences. Reasons to prefer anonymity include: fear of repercussions, isolation, or losing one’s job due to political opinions. For example, signing a petition in favor of the legalization of marijuana might have different consequences for an individual than signing a petition for lowering gas taxes.

Peddinti, et al. (2014) found that content sensitivity had an impact on Twitter users’ degree of anonymity. Twitter accounts dealing with sensitive issues like pornography, marijuana, islamophobia and homosexuality had 21 percent anonymous followers. Twitter accounts coded as dealing with non-sensitive issues (e.g., movies, family recreation, news) had at most nine percent anonymous followers [9]. The more sensitive/controversial issue the Twitter account dealt with, the larger share of anonymous followers it attracted.

Similar to paper based petitions; electronic petition systems may produce unreliable results in the form of duplicate signatures. Some systems gather personal information from the signers to prevent this. However, this is not necessarily a privacy-friendly method when political opinions are expressed, as databases might be hacked. Therefore, privacy-preserving e-petition systems, just as e-voting systems, are needed to preserve citizens’ anonymity without the possibility of multiple signatures from one person (Verslype, et al., 2008; Diaz, et al., 2009). Green [10] argues the real threat of disclosure is loss of political obscurity, which exposes citizens to “indelible Internet scrutiny and rampant political preference cataloguing.” This can be exemplified using a case in the U.S., where gay rights opponents were upset once a court made it clear that the names of the signers of a petition (supporting a referendum to overturn support for gay and lesbian rights) would be disclosed on the Internet [11].

An international comparison reveals that some petition sites publish the full name of the signers, others replace the full name with initials, while some do not publish names at all (Bershadskaya, et al., 2013). Riehm, et al. (2011) concluded that publication of signers’ names on the Internet did not seem to be an absolute necessity in the German Bundestag e-petition system, since signature lists for mass and group petitions were not accessible to the public. In 2012, the possibility for pseudonymous signing was introduced in the German Bundestag e-petition platform. Users were thus able to have a pseudonym listed instead of their real name on the publicly available list of supporters. After the design change, a small but not statistically significant increase in signatures was noted (Schmidt and Johnsen, 2014). A majority of signers, some 76 percent, preferred to use a pseudonym, but this was regarded as a “default effect” by the authors, since the default setting was pseudonymous signing. ”Thus, the fairly high proportion of pseudonymous signatures would not be an indication for the users’ discomfort towards linking their name to a political issue, but rather evidence for a notable structuring effect of software design.” [12]

In a survey of German Bundestag e-petition platform users (n=215), Schmidt and Johnsen [13] found that almost half of the users stated that they sign e-petitions with their real names in either most cases or always. About 40 percent of the users opted to sign pseudonymously always or in most cases. Consequently, the users seem divided into two almost equal camps when it comes to how they think about pseudonymous e-petition signing. Twenty-seven percent revealed always signing under a pseudonym, whilst 32 percent stated they always signed with their real name, which indicates that about 59 percent of the users had already made up their mind about how they are going to sign any e-petition. Eleven percent of users claimed they sometimes sign under a pseudonym and sometimes by real name. Thus, it seems plausible that a majority of e-petition signers are not affected by e-petition characteristics when making up their mind about signing an e-petition pseudonymously or not. By implication, this suggests there are some e-petition characteristics which might influence whether or not citizens sign e-petitions anonymously.

Which properties of e-petitions affect the share of anonymous signatures? The dearth of research regarding political anonymity makes it difficult to answer this question. Therefore, an explorative approach has been employed to identify possible determinants for the share of anonymous signatures, by coding e-petitions for variables used in previous research (e.g., Cotton, 2012; Lindner and Riehm, 2011; Schmidt and Johnsen, 2014). Using Lasswell’s (1948) classic model for political communication, these determinants were adapted and sorted according to who (initiator gender, initiator anonymity, initiator type) says what (topic, controversiality, demand type, level) to whom (addressee), how (signal/tone, preparation, argumentation, affectivity, future, traditional media, social media, Web link) and with what effect (share of anonymous signatures). Additionally, form aspects as when (creation year) the e-petitions were created, and the length of the petition texts, have been covered.

 

++++++++++

Data and methods

The empirical data used in this study originated from the Finnish e-petition site www.adressit.com. This site is an informal e-petition “warehouse” site (cf., Van Laer and Van Aelst, 2009) established in 2006 by a private entrepreneur, Mr. Samppa Rehu, who administers the site and provided access to the data. Visitors can create, view or sign petitions online. The information required about the creator of an online petition is a functioning e-mail address. Creators of a petition have the option of withholding their real name. Signers are asked to enter their full name, address and home country. Submitting an e-mail address and revealing one’s name online is optional for signers. This results in a unique opportunity to study when citizens chose to make their political participation public online. More specifically, it can tell us when they prefer not to.

Adressit.com is the largest informal e-petition Web site in Finland and contains over 5,000 petitions [14]. Adressit.com makes an interesting case study because it has existed for a relatively long time and can be considered as rather well-established even though it is facing competition from the formal e-petition sites kuntalaisaloite.fi and kansalaisaloite.fi. In the media, the site has received criticism for being ineffective (Mikkola, 2007), being susceptible for fraud (Viitasaari, 2012) [15] and hosting discussions of low quality (Marjamäki, 2012). Nevertheless, the site contains e-petitions which vary greatly in characteristics, which means the potential impact of these characteristics on the share of anonymous signatures can be examined.

There are several reasons behind the decision to study a Finnish site. Firstly, Finland has one of the highest rates of regular Internet use in the EU (91 percent) and a high (92 percent) Internet penetration making it suitable for inquiry about e-petitions (https://ec.europa.eu/digital-agenda/en/scoreboard/finland). Secondly, petition signing (off-line and online) is among the most popular types of political participation among Finnish citizens. About one half of the Finnish electorate has signed some kind of petition [16]. Thirdly, the introduction of the formal petition system (see kansalaisaloite.fi) in 2012 makes Finland the first Nordic country to institutionalize citizens’ initiatives online on a national, state level (Emtö, 2013). In other words, e-petitions seem to have an established societal role in Finland.

The data file included the share of anonymous signatures and URLs for 4,392 e-petitions on adressit.com. Due to economic reasons, a randomized sample of 219 e-petitions (five percent) was chosen for analysis. I used quantitative content analysis to examine the characteristics of the e-petitions; the unit of analysis is consequently an e-petition. Each e-petition was coded for 18 independent variables of interest. In addition to basic characteristics as form, the variables covered who says what to whom, how and with what effect (cf., Lasswell, 1948) using the e-petitions as a means of political communication and participation. The dependent variable of interest was the share of anonymous signatures. The e-petitions were coded during five weeks in September–October 2014. Intercoder reliability of the coding scheme was calculated using percent agreement and Krippendorff’s alpha (Krippendorff, 2004). Overall, inter-agreement was 89 percent, and Krippendorff’s alpha exceeded the threshold of 0.8 (Krippendorff, 2004), ranging from 0.68 to 1.00. In general, reliability was moderate to high for most variables (according to Krippendorff (2004) an alpha value over 0.67 is sufficient for tentative conclusions).

The first step in the analysis was to find out which of the independent variables had a statistically significant effect on the dependent variable, i.e., the share of anonymous signatures. Since almost every independent variable was measured on a nominal or ordinal scale and the share of anonymous signatures was non-normally distributed according to the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test, Kruskal-Wallis H-tests and Mann-Whitney U-test were performed to single out statistically significant independent variables. These independent variables were then entered into a general linear model regression analysis to determine whether the statistically significant differences between categories in the bivariate analyses remained when controlling for other variables. A general linear model is not particularly sensitive to outliers and thus robust to non-normal distributions (SPSS, 2009).

 

++++++++++

Results

 

Table 1: Descriptive statistics about e-petitions.
Notes: *Missing cases due to deletion of petition info on adressit.com during coding process.
**Measured in number of characters including blank spaces.
VariableMean
(standard deviation)
MedianMinimumMaximumN
Share of anonymous signatures32.2% (0.15)29.73%97%219
Signatures1,085 (2,445)32710229,092219
Signatures per IP1.28 (0.63)1.1619.27219
Comments27.3 (74.1)50576216*
Comments per signature0.04 (0.16)0.0101.81216*
Length of text**1,659 (1,791)1,174621,316216*
Active71 %219
Age in days1,505 (737)1,554212,633219

 

Judging from the general descriptive statistics shown in Table 1, the share of anonymous signatures, the dependent variable, varied greatly between e-petitions. In total, about one third of the online signatures on adressit.com were done anonymously. The mean number of signatures per e-petition is 1,085, but the standard deviation was high. On the one hand, the number of signatures per IP address can be a coarse measure of misuse or faking of signatures. On the other hand, different family members might sign an e-petition using the same computer, and therefore use the same IP address. In general, the mean number of signatures per IP address was rather low (1.3). When comparing the mean number of comments per signature, the ratio was low (0.04). In relation to the number of signers, few people chose to comment on an e-petition. The standard deviation regarding the mean length of the e-petition texts indicated a rather high degree of variation. A majority of the e-petitions (71 percent) were still active at the time of coding even though the earliest data originated from 2006.

 

Table 2: Share of anonymous signatures according to independent variables part 1/2.
Notes: Bivariate Kruskal-Wallis H-test and Mann-Whitney U-test were used to examine statistically significant differences between categories. *p<0.05, **p<0.01, ***p<0.001.
† Statistically significant correlation between independent and dependent variable detected using Spearman’s rank-order correlation coefficient, rs =-.448, p=.000.
†† Statistically significant correlation between independent and dependent variable detected using Spearman’s rank-order correlation coefficient, rs =-.301, p=.000.
Variable groupIndependent variableCategoriesShare of anonymous signatures, meanStandard deviationNPercentage
FormCreation year† ***20060.380.103416
  20070.380.153616
  20080.380.213215
  20090.310.143817
  20100.290.092612
  20110.240.10209
  20120.220.092612
  20130.240.0973
 Length of text†† ***     
       
Who?Initiator gender *Unable to tell0.370.164119
  Woman or majority of women0.300.269745
  Man or majority of men0.320.317836
       
 Initiator anonymous **No0.300.1316878
  Yes0.390.184822
       
 Initiator type ***Organization/group0.230.083918
  Individual0.330.1414663
  Anonymous0.390.163119
       
What?Topic ***Education, science & technology0.250.113918
  Employment, national economy, taxes0.310.11178
  Environment, transport & traffic0.260.104320
  Media, culture, entertainment0.430.193617
  Social issues, health care0.290.122713
  Religion, moral & ethics, drugs & alcohol0.310.09136
  EU, international issues0.390.15115
  Other0.380.152713
       
 Controversial topicNo0.320.1520395
  Yes0.340.11105
       
 Demand type ***Specific, pro establishment, preservation0.240.118339
  Specific, con establishment, shutdown, resignation, boycott0.310.114220
  Specific, demand about law change0.340.093416
  General demand0.330.11209
  Other0.500.163416
       
 Level ***National, international0.380.1311253
  Municipal, regional0.260.1310147

 

Moving on to the possible determinants for the share of anonymous signatures, Table 2 shows who petitioned about what. Table 3 concerns to whom the e-petitions were directed, and how they were presented. The two tables are split due to length reasons. Out of the nine independent variables examined in Table 2, only one — controversial topic — did not have a statistically significant effect on the share of anonymous signatures. There were few (n=10) e-petitions concerning controversial topics in the analyzed sample [17]. However, since this is a surprising finding, I conducted an additional test to check if this finding was due to the low number of controversial topics in the sample. A stratified sample of an additional 30 e-petitions coded as controversial topics was added to the randomized sample. Nevertheless, a bivariate Mann-Whitney U-test showed no statistically significant difference (p=.111) between the share of anonymous signatures when comparing controversial (n=40, M=0.34, SD=0.13) and non-controversial (n=203, M=0.32, SD=0.15) e-petition topics. Furthermore, six variables (creation year, length of text, initiator type, topic, demand type and level) had a statistically significant effect at the significance level of p<0.001. The creation year of the e-petition correlated with the share of anonymous signatures: since 2009, the share has been decreasing. The length of the e-petition text correlated negatively with the dependent variable, indicating that longer texts tended to have a lower share of anonymous signatures. The gender of the initiator did not have an impact on the share of anonymous signatures, even though there is a statistically significant difference which is caused by the category “unable to tell”. The difference between men and women is relatively small, 0.02, and not statistically significant. Petitions with anonymous initiators were more likely to attract a higher share of anonymous signatures as indicated by the nine percent difference depending on initiator anonymity.

There were indications of an effect showing that e-petitions initiated by organizations or groups tended to have a lower share of anonymous signatures compared to e-petitions initiated by individuals, while anonymous initiators had the highest share among the categories. Concerning e-petition topics, “softer” issues touching upon media, culture and entertainment as well as EU-related, international issues seemed to attract a higher share of anonymous signatures than the other categories. Demand types that were specific and in favor of an establishment or wanted to preserve something was the largest category for the variable demand type and had the lowest share of anonymous signatures. The more unspecific demand type category, “other”, had a high share (50 percent) of anonymous signatures. More locally and regionally oriented issues had a lower share of anonymous signatures compared to issues on a national/international level, as illustrated by the variable “level” in Table 2.

 

Table 3: Share of anonymous signatures according to independent variables part 2/2.
Notes: Bivariate Kruskal-Wallis H-test and Mann-Whitney U-test were used to examine statistically significant differences between categories. *p<0.05, **p<0.01, ***p<0.001.
Variable groupVariableCategoriesShare of anonymous signatures, meanStandard deviationNPercentage
To whom?Addressee ***Public authority (e.g., Parliament, government)0.330.117033
  Municipal decision-maker or institution0.230.087736
  Private company or organization0.410.194220
  The public0.300.1773
  Other/don’t know0.470.09178
       
How?Signal/tone ***Positive0.210.053014
  Neutral0.350.1613061
  Negative0.310.115425
       
 Preparation ***Very prepared0.240.092813
  Prepared0.300.1313061
  Poorly prepared0.400.165626
       
 Argumentation **Thorough argumentation0.210.0884
  Argumentation0.310.1417682
  No argumentation0.390.173014
       
 Affectivity *Not emotional0.310.1416477
  Emotional0.360.164923
       
 FutureNo0.320.1513166
  Yes0.330.146834
       
 Traditional mediaNo0.330.1517990
  Yes0.290.112010
       
 Social mediaNo0.320.1519297
  Yes0.390.1973
       
 Web linkNo0.320.1514774
  Yes0.330.145226

 

Statistically significant effects were found for five of the nine independent variables shown in Table 3. The e-petitions addressed both public and private actors and the share of anonymous signatures was higher for private companies and organization compared to public actors. The cases where the addressee was unknown or difficult to determine resulted in a higher share of anonymous signatures. The signal or tone of the headline of an e-petition had a statistically significant impact on the dependent variable suggesting a positive tone resulted in a lower share of anonymous signatures. Concerning preparation quality, there was a negative linear effect: better prepared e-petition texts resulted in a lower share of anonymous signatures. A similar effect was detected for the variable argumentation, which showed, in particular, that e-petition texts lacking argumentation tended to acquire a higher share of anonymous signatures. However, it is worth noting that the number of e-petitions featuring “thorough argumentation” was low (n=8). E-petition texts where emotions were clearly evident had a statistically significant higher share of anonymous signatures.

Next, to determine the independent influence of each independent variable on the share of anonymous signatures, the variables for which statistically significant independent effects were found in the bivariate analyses were entered as predictors in a univariate general linear model (Table 4).

 

Table 4: Univariate general linear model analysis. Part 1/2.
Notes: ^p<0.10, *p<0.05, **p<0.01, ***p<0.001. a Last category was used as reference category for the independent variables. Only statistically significant independent variables from bivariate tests (see Tables 2 and 3) were used in this regression model. A regression analysis model featuring all variables was also performed. This model resulted in a slight increase in the adjusted R2 value (0.044), but none of the omitted variables had a statistically significant effect on the dependent variable.
Variable groupIndependent variableCategoriesBeta coefficientS.E.Partial eta squaredNPercentage
FormCreation year -,011*,000,034  
        
 Length of text ,000,000,001  
        
Who?Initiator genderUnable to tell-,043,042,0064119
  Woman or majority of women-,021,017,0089745
  Man or majority of men0a  7836
        
 Initiator anonymousNo-,107*,052,02316878
  Yes0a  4822
        
 Initiator typeOrganization/group,008,047,0003918
  Individual,059,049,00814663
  Anonymous0a  3119
        
What?TopicEducation, science & technology,018,032,0023918
  Employment, national economy, taxes-,014,036,001178
  Environment, transport & traffic,018,031,0024320
  Media, culture, entertainment,051^,028,0173617
  Social issues, health care,041,033,0082713
  Religion, moral & ethics, drugs & alcohol-,021,040,001136
  EU, international issues,071^,043,015115
  Other0a  2713
        
 LevelNational, international,016,029,00211253
  Municipal, regional0a  10147
 R2=.566; Adjusted R2=.494; N=219      

 

Four of 15 independent variables had a statistically significant effect on the share of anonymous signatures (adjusted R2=.494). Three of these are shown in Table 4 and one in Table 5 due to length reasons. The effects of creation year, initiator anonymity and demand type remained statistically significant when controlling for other variables. The e-petitions had a decreasing share of anonymous signatures for every year, although it is evident in Table 2 that the decrease did not start before 2009, after remaining stable for the years 2006–2008. Anonymous initiators predicted the share of anonymous signatures; people were more likely to follow the example of an anonymous initiator and remain anonymous themselves. The effect of demand type suggests the “other” category, which was used as a reference category in Table 4, seemed to have a great influence on the dependent variable.

 

Table 5: Univariate general linear model analysis. Part 2/2.
Notes: ^p<0.10, *p<0.05, **p<0.01, ***p<0.001. a Last category was used as reference category for the independent variables.
Variable groupVariableCategoriesBeta coefficientS.E.Partial eta squaredNPercentage
To whom?AddresseePublic authority (e.g., Parliament, government)-,011,038,0007033
  Municipal decision-maker or institution-,036,044,0047736
  Private company or organization,022,034,0024220
  The public-,063,054,00773
  Other/don’t know0a  178
        
How?Signal/tonePositive-,025,028,0043014
  Neutral,022,021,00613061
  Negative0a  5425
        
 PreparationVery prepared-,071*,032,0262813
  Prepared-,049*,020,03313061
  Poorly prepared0a  5626
        
 ArgumentationThorough argumentation,027,054,00184
  Argumentation,024,025,00517682
  No argumentation0a  3014
        
 AffectivityNot emotional-,014,018,00316477
  Emotional0a  4923
 R2=.566; Adjusted R2=.494; N=219      

 

The last independent variable which had a statistically significant effect in the regression analysis (Table 5) was preparation quality. The beta coefficients showed that the share of anonymous signatures was lower the better prepared an e-petition was. The other variables, concerning to whom the e-petition was directed, and how the e-petition was put forward, did not result in statistically significant effects.

As indicated by the partial eta squared values in Tables 4 and 5, the independent variables explaining most of the variance in the share of anonymous signatures were (from largest to smallest): demand type, preparation quality, year of creation, and initiator anonymity (see Figure 1). A general linear model regression analysis including only these four independent variables resulted in an adjusted R2 value of .460, a mere .034 lower than the model presented in Tables 4 and 5.

 

The determinants of the share of anonymous signatures
 
Figure 1: The determinants of the share of anonymous signatures.

 

 

++++++++++

Discussion and conclusion

The purpose of this study was to increase knowledge about patterns behind anonymous e-petition signing. Using quantitative content analysis, it investigated the link between e-petitions characteristics and signature disclosure on an informal e-petition platform in Finland. The study sought to address: which e-petitions characteristics have an effect on the share of anonymous signatures?

Approximately a third selected the anonymous option when signing e-petitions at adressit.com, indicating that the option is valued amongst the users. This is much less than the 76 percent pseudonymous signatures Schmidt and Johnsen (2014) found at the German Bundestag e-petition platform. However, the numbers are not fully comparable because the default option on the German platform was pseudonymity. In contrast, the default option for signers at adressit.com is name disclosure. Nevertheless, a third of the signers at adressit.com actively choose to be anonymous. In general, when comparing these results with the German findings, a default choice effect seems to exist, with citizens sticking to the default option the e-petition platform provides.

Surprisingly, and contrary to previous research (cf., La Raja, 2011; Peddinti, et al., 2014), the controversiality of the e-petition topic did not have a statistically significant effect on the share of anonymous signatures. A possible explanation could be that citizens attracted to signing controversial e-petitions are already activists with both time and effort invested in the cause and might not be concerned by any risk in disclosing their preferences.

Several independent variables remained statistically significant predictors when entered into the general linear model, indicating that some of the variation in the share of anonymous signatures is due to e-petition characteristics. One of these predictors, the creation year of the e-petitions, showed a clear trend of a decreasing share of anonymous signatures since 2009. Arguably, the decreasing share of anonymous signatures might be a result of changing online norms, making real name policies more common and accepted among citizens. Facebook, constantly pushing a real name policy, started to gain ground in Finland in 2007 and was translated into Finnish in 2008 (Kauppi, 2008). By 2011, about half of the Finnish population used some kind of social media (Statistics Finland, 2011). Of course, this is speculative, the site adressit.com might have become more wide known and familiar to citizens, giving them incentives and making them more comfortable with the idea to sign e-petitions with their real name on adressit.com.

People were more likely to sign e-petitions anonymously if the e-petition initiator was anonymous. This suggests anonymity is contagious in the sense that citizens seem to follow the initiative of the initiator and remain anonymous themselves. Perhaps an uncertainty about the true motivations of the initiator gives rise to doubts in the mind of the signer regarding the seriousness of the e-petitions. This finding echoes previous research showing that people usually try to adapt to the behavior of others to fit in into the social norm [18].

The topic of the e-petition did have an effect on the share of anonymous signatures as the demand type turned out to be the most influential statistically significant predictor. Roughly put, the more specific and in favor of something an e-petition was, the smaller share of anonymous signatures it produced. E-petitions with vague demands tended to get a larger share of anonymous signatures. This finding suggests it is easier for citizens to use their real name when the demand of the e-petition is clearly specified and presented in a positive tone, compared to more diffuse demands presented in a negative tone. Moreover, vague demands can indicate less serious e-petition texts, which might explain the high share of anonymous signatures for the demand type “other” [19].

Higher quality e-petition texts produced a lower share of anonymous signatures, suggesting preparation quality is a key predictor. This finding points to the trend that people are less willing to sign less serious, poorly prepared e-petitions with their own name. Maybe people are more likely to sign better prepared e-petitions because they believe these will have a chance of causing change in contrast to less prepared e-petitions. Furthermore, people might support the cause of the petition, but are unwilling to become affiliated with it due to the low quality of the e-petition text and therefore sign anonymously. Better prepared e-petitions might be considered to have a better chance of reaching success and people might have a winner bias, i.e., an incentive to publicly support e-petitions they regard as probably successful. When e-petitions are more poorly prepared they take a chance and sign them anonymously; a more risk free behavior.

In conclusion, this study shows there are several e-petition characteristics affecting the share of anonymous signatures. At a first glance, most of the possible predictors presented and tested in the study seemed to have an effect on people’s choice to sign e-petitions anonymously. However, most of these lost their statistical significance when controlled for in a general linear model. Nevertheless, four variables stood out as significant predictors and could explain quite a lot of the total variance in the share of anonymous signatures. Previous research on political anonymity has not investigated reasons behind citizens’ choice to act anonymously, thus revealing few hints about what could possibly impact such a decision. This study, however, has shown that the variance in the share of anonymous signatures can be attributed to specific e-petition characteristics as demand type.

This study has hopefully increased understanding of when citizens tend to act anonymously when signing e-petitions, which begs the question of why they do so. Future studies may help in understanding the reasons and motivations for acting anonymously, since this is an option citizens use when given the chance. By widening the scope from e-petitions, future research could deal with other forms of political participation such as political donations and online political discussion, where anonymity is an option for citizens. End of article

 

About the author

Janne Berg is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science at Åbo Akademi University in Finland.
E-mail: jaberg [at] abo [dot] fi

 

Acknowledgments

The coding scheme is available on request from the author.

 

Notes

1. Scott, 2004, p. 139.

2. Political obscurity refers to individual control over the scope of public knowledge about one’s political preferences (Green, 2013, p. 371).

3. Green, 2013, p. 382.

4. Lindner and Riehm, 2011, p. 1.

5. Green, 2013, p. 367.

6. La Raja, 2011, p. 3.

7. Ibid.

8. Boudin, 2011, p. 2,154.

9. Peddinti, et al., 2014, p. 87.

10. Green, 2013, p. 367.

11. See Oman, 2011, pp. 4–5; Boudin, 2011.

12. Schmidt and Johnsen, 2014, p. 42.

13. Schmidt and Johnsen, 2014, p. 43.

14. Lietsala and Sirkkunen, 2008, p. 64.

15. In a famous example of an online petition that was accused of gathering false signatures, most of the signatures could later be verified to be genuine; see Häyhtiö and Rinne, 2008, p. 314.

16. Borg, 2013, p. 54.

17. On a general level, issues that evoke strong emotions, exist on the border between the public and the private, and deal with individual freedom were coded as controversial issues. For example, petitions with headlines as “No to gay marriage”, “Stop vaccines against the swine flu” or “At least not a sixth nuclear power plant to Finland” [author’s translation from Finnish].

18. See Stromer-Galley and Martey, 2009, pp. 1,043–1,045.

19. This category included e-petitions that demanded, for example, an artist to come and perform to Finland, a change of board members for an ice hockey club, or a redesign of a Finnish social media platform. In other words, it contained demands that were less “political” or policy-related than the other categories.

 

References

Diane Alexander, 2009. “The economics of signing petitions: Social pressure versus social engagement,” unpublished Master’s thesis, University of California, Berkeley, at https://www.econ.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/diane_alexander_thesis.pdf, accessed 19 January 2017.

Eva Anduiza, Michael Jensen and Laia Jorba (editors), 2012. Digital media and political engagement worldwide: A comparative study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lyudmila Bershadskaya, Andrei Chugunov and Dmitrii Trutnev, 2013. “E-participation development: A comparative study of the Russian, USA and UK e-petition initiatives,” ICEGOV ’13: Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Theory and Practice of Electronic Governance, pp. 73–76.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2591888.2591900, accessed 19 January 2017.

Sami Borg, 2013. Demokratiaindikaattorit 2013. Helsinki: Oikeusministeriö/Justitieministeriet, at http://oikeusministerio.fi/fi/index/julkaisut/julkaisuarkisto/1381926978054.html, accessed 19 January 2017.

Chesa Boudin, 2011. “Publius and the petition: Doe v. Reed and the history of anonymous speech,” Yale Law Journal, volume 120, number 8, pp. 2,140–2,181, and at http://www.yalelawjournal.org/note/publius-and-the-petition-doe-v-reed-and-the-history-of-anonymous-speech, accessed 19 January 2017.

Anita Breuer and Bilal Farooq, 2012. “Online political participation: Slacktivism or efficiency increased activism? Evidence from the Brazilian Ficha Limpa campaign,” paper presented at the 2012 International Communication Association (ICA) annual conference.

Neal Caren, Andrew Ghoshal and Vanesa Ribas, 2011. “A social movement generation: Cohort and period trends in protest attendance and petition signing,” American Sociological Review, volume 76, number 1, pp. 125–151.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0003122410395369, accessed 19 January 2017.

Andrew Chadwick, 2012. “How digital petitions are replacing traditional parties as the engine of modern, popular democracy,” Independent (19 November), at http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/how-digital-petitions-are-replacing-traditional-parties-as-the-engine-of-modern-popular-democracy-8329266.html, accessed 19 January 2017.

Henrik S. Christensen, 2011. “Political activities on the Internet: Slacktivism or political participation by other means?” First Monday, volume 16, number 2, at http://firstmonday.org/article/view/3336/2767, accessed at 27 April 2015.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v16i2.3336, accessed 19 January 2017.

Ross Cotton, 2012. “Political participation and e-petitioning: An analysis of the policy-making impact of the Scottish Parliament’s e-petition system,” University of Central Florida Undergraduate Research Journal, volume 6, number 1, pp. 33–44, at https://www.urj.ucf.edu/docs/cotton.pdf, accessed 19 January 2017.

Peter Cruickshank, Noella Edelmann and Colin F. Smith, 2010. “Signing an e-petition as a transition from lurking to participation,” In: Jean Chappellet, Olivier Glassey, Marijin Janssen, Ann Macintosh, Jochen Scholl, Efthimios Tambouris and Maria Wimmer (editors), Electronic government and electronic participation. Linz: Trauner, pp. 275–282.

Russell J. Dalton, 2008. “Citizenship norms and the expansion of political participation,” Political Studies, volume 56, number 1, pp. 76–98.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9248.2007.00718.x, accessed 19 January 2017.

Claudia Diaz, Eleni Kosta, Hannelore Dekeyser, Markulf Kohlweiss and Girma Nigusse, 2008. “Privacy preserving electronic petitions,” Identity in the Information Society, volume 1, number 1, pp. 203–219.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s12394-009-0012-8, accessed 19 January 2017.

Jennifer Earl and Alan Schussman, 2008. “Contesting cultural control: Youth culture and online petitioning,” In: W. Lance Bennett (editor). Civic life online: Learning how digital media can engage youth. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, pp. 71–95.

Jenna Emtö, 2013. “Våg av finländsk direkt demokrati? En studie om nationella medborgarinitiativ i Finland,” unpublished Master’s thesis, Lunds Universitet, Lund, at https://lup.lub.lu.se/student-papers/search/publication/3629113, accessed 19 January 2017.

Tobias Escher, 2011. “WriteToThem.com: Analysis of users and usage for UK citizens online democracy,” London: mySociety/UK Citizens Online Democracy, at https://www.mysociety.org/files/2011/06/WriteToThem_research_report-2011-Tobias-Escher.pdf, accessed 27 April 2015.

Rebecca Green, 2013. “Petitions, privacy, and political obscurity,” Temple Law Review, volume 85, number 2, pp. 367–411.

Scott A. Hale, Helen Margetts and Taha Yasseri, 2013. “Petition growth and success rates on the UK no. 10 Downing Street website,” WebSci ’13: Proceedings of the Fifth Annual ACM Web Science Conference, pp. 132–138.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2464464.2464518, accessed 19 January 2017.

Lindsay H. Hoffman, Philip E. Jones and Dannagal G. Young, 2013. “Does my comment count? Perceptions of political participation in an online environment,” Computers in Human Behavior, volume 29, number 6, pp. 2,248–2,256.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2013.05.010, accessed 19 January 2017.

Andreas Jungherr and Pascal Jürgens, 2010. “The political click: Political participation through e–petitions in Germany,” Policy & Internet, volume 2, number 4, pp. 131–165.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.2202/1944-2866.1084, accessed 19 January 2017.

Emma Kauppi, 2008. “Facebook kääntyy suomeksi,” Markkinointi & Mainonta (2 April), at http://www.marmai.fi/uutiset/facebook+kaantyy+suomeksi/a2122107, accessed 27 April 2015.

Klaus Krippendorff, 2004. “Reliability in content analysis: Some common misconceptions and recommendations,” Human Communication Research, volume 30, number 3, pp. 411–433.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2958.2004.tb00738.x, accessed 19 January 2017.

Harold D. Lasswell, 1948. “The structure and function of communication in society,” In: Lyman Bryson (editor). The communication of ideas, a series of addresses. New York: Harper, pp. 215–228.

Yu-Hao Lee and Gary Hsieh, 2013. “Does slacktivism hurt activism? The effects of moral balancing and consistency in online activism,” CHI ’13: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, pp. 811–820.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2470654.2470770, accessed 19 January 2017.

Katri Lietsala and Esa Sirkkunen, 2008. Social media: Introduction to the tools and processes of participatory economy. Tampere: Tampere University Press, and at https://tampub.uta.fi/bitstream/handle/10024/65560/978-951-44-7320-3.pdf, accessed 19 January 2017.

Ralf Lindner and Ulrich Riehm, 2011. “Broadening participation through e–petitions? An empirical study of petitions to the German Parliament,” Policy & Internet, volume 3, number 1, pp. 1–23.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.2202/1944-2866.1083, accessed 19 January 2017.

Ralf Lindner and Ulrich Riehm, 2009. “Electronic petitions and institutional modernization: International parliamentary e-petition systems in comparative perspective,” eJournal of eDemocracy & Open Government, volume 1, number 1, pp. 1–11, and at http://jedem.org/index.php/jedem/article/view/3h, accessed 19 January 2017.

Ann Macintosh, Anna Malina and Steve Farrell, 2002. “Digital democracy through electronic petitioning,” In: William J. McIver Jr. and Ahmed K. Elmagarmid (editors). Advances in digital government: Technology, human factors, and policy. Boston, Mass.: Kluwer Academic, pp. 137–148.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/0-306-47374-7_8, accessed 19 January 2017.

Kesi Mahendran and Deborah Cook, 2007. Participation and engagement in politics and policy making: Building a bridge between Europe and its citizens. Edinburgh: Scottish Executive Social Research, Finance & Central Services Department, at http://www.gov.scot/resource/doc/163759/0044572.pdf, accessed 19 January 2017.

Tuomas Marjamäki, 2012. “Hiljaista meteliä,” Apu (20 November), at http://www.apu.fi/artikkeli/hiljaista-metelia, accessed 19 January 2017.

Pekka Mikkola, 2007. “Nettiadressien alamäestä tuli yhtä jyrkkä kuin nousukin oli,” Kaleva (18 October), at http://www.kaleva.fi/mielipide/kolumnit/nettiadressien-alamaesta-tuli-yhta-jyrkka-kuin-nousukin-oli/40208/, accessed 19 January 2017.

Candace Oman, 2011. “True or false: Anonymity is worth fighting for,” In: Transparency and privacy: Clashing paradigms in a web 2.0 world. Salt Lake City: University of Utah. At http://honors.utah.edu/, accessed 27 April 2015.

Panagiotis Panagiotopoulos, Christopher Moody and Tony Elliman, 2011. “An overview assessment of ePetitioning tools in the English local government,” In: Efthimios Tambouris, Ann Macintosh and Hans de Bruijn (editors). Electronic participation. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, volume 6847. Berlin: Springer, pp. 204–215.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-23333-3_18, accessed 19 January 2017.

Sai T. Peddinti, Keith W. Ross and Justin Cappos, 2014. “‘On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog’: A Twitter case study of anonymity in social networks,” COSN ’14: Proceedings of the Second ACM Conference on Online Social Networks, pp. 83–94.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2660460.2660467, accessed 19 January 2017.

Tiago Peixoto, 2013. “What’s wrong with e-petitions and how to fix them,” DemocracySpot (15 January), at http://democracyspot.net/2013/01/15/whats-wrong-with-e-petitions-and-how-to-fix-them/, accessed 27 April 2015.

Lawrence Pratchett, Catherine Durose, Vivien Lowndes, Graham Smith, Gerry Stoker and Corinne Wales, 2009. Empowering communities to influence local decision making: Systematic review of the evidence. London: Great Britain, Department for Communities and Local Government, and at http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20120919132719/http://www.communities.gov.uk/publications/localgovernment/localdecisionreview, accessed 19 January 2017.

Raymond J. La Raja, 2011. “Does transparency of political activity have a chilling effect on participation?” paper presented at the 2011 meetings of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, at http://projects.iq.harvard.edu/files/cces/files/la_raja-_transparency_of_political_activity.pdf, accessed 19 January 2017.

Will Riley, 2009. “We the undersigned: Anonymous dissent and the struggle for personal identity in online petitions,” unpublished Master’s thesis, Georgia Institute of Technology, at https://smartech.gatech.edu/bitstream/handle/1853/28102/riley_william_f_200905_mast.pdf, accessed 19 January 2017.

Jan-Hinrik Schmidt and Katharina Johnsen, 2014. “On the use of the e-petition platform of the German Bundestag,” HIIG Discussion Paper Series, number 2014-03, at https://www.hans-bredow-institut.de/de/publikation/use-e-petition-platform-german-bundestag, accessed 27 April 2015.

Craig R. Scott, 2004. “Benefits and drawbacks of anonymous online communication: Legal challenges and communicative recommendations,” Free Speech Yearbook, volume 41, number 1, pp. 127–141.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08997225.2004.10556309, accessed 19 January 2017.

SPSS, Inc., 2009. “PASW statistics for Windows,” version 18.0, at http://www.ibm.com/analytics/us/en/technology/spss/, accessed 19 January 2017.

Statistics Finland, 2011. “Tiedonhaku internetistä vaaleissa” (14 June), at http://www.stat.fi/til/sutivi/2011/sutivi_2011_2011-11-02_kat_003_fi.html, accessed 27 April 2015.

Jennifer Stromer-Galley and Rosa Martey, 2009. “Visual spaces, norm governed places: The influence of spatial context online,” New Media & Society, volume 11, number 6, pp. 1,041–1,060.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1461444809336555, accessed 19 January 2017.

Jeroen Van Laer and Peter Van Aelst, 2010. “Internet and social movement action repertoires: Opportunities and limitations,” Information, Communication & Society, volume 13, number 8, pp. 1,146–1,171.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13691181003628307, accessed 19 January 2017.

Kristof Verslype, Jorn Lapon, Pieter Verhaeghe, Vincent Naessens and Bart De Decker, 2008. “PetAnon: A privacy-preserving e-petition system based on idemix,” KU Leuven, Department of Computer Science, CW Reports, volume CW522, at https://lirias.kuleuven.be/handle/123456789/203429, accessed 27 April 2015.

Esko Viitasaari, 2012. “Olemattomat adressin allekirjoittajat,” Ilkka (26 March), at http://www.ilkka.fi/mielipide/yleisöltä/olemattomat-adressin-allekirjoittajat-1.1168634, accessed 19 January 2017.

Angus Whyte, Alistair Renton and Ann Macintosh, 2005. “E-petitioning in Kingston and Bristol: Evaluation of e-petitioning in the local e-democracy national project,” International Teledemocracy Centre, Napier University, at http://itc.napier.ac.uk/ITC/documents/Evaluation_of_e-Petitioning_Local_e-Democracy_National_Project05.pdf, accessed 27 April 2015.

Scott Wright, 2012. “Politics as usual? Revolution, normalization and a new agenda for online deliberation,” New Media & Society, volume 14, number 2, pp. 244–261.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1461444811410679, accessed 19 January 2017.

Taha Yasseri, Scott A. Hale and Helen Z.Margetts, 2013. “Modeling the rise in Internet-based petitions,” arXiv (1 August), at https://arxiv.org/pdf/1308.0239.pdf, accessed 27 April 2015.

 


Editorial history

Received 18 January 2016; revised 22 September 2016; accepted 16 November 2016.


Copyright © 2017, Janne Berg. All rights reserved.

The dark side of e-petitions? Exploring anonymous signatures
by Janne Berg.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 2 - 6 February 2017
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/6001/5910
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v22i12.6001





A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.