Think that the United States could benefit from some more military defenses? Good news! We’re getting a Death Star in 2016.
Just kidding. Well, maybe not.
The White House website’s We the People program, where registered users can create government petitions and gather signatures, has become increasingly popular.
The program was revolutionary in the way it took a unique American political tradition into the digital age. The intent was pure — create or sign a petition, garner support and, if enough signatures are gathered, the White House would issue an official response to the petition. Yet, since going live Sept. 22, 2011, it seems as if the program is now succumbing to the negative effects of the digital age.
Need an example? Via the We the People program, a petition titled “Secure resources and funding, and begin construction of a Death Star by 2016” was digitally signed by 33,011 individuals as of publication time.
While the petition is, admittedly, kind of hilarious, it seems as if it is the result of trolling. Especially when considering how it is surrounded by petitions asking for the government to support gay marriage or strengthen gun-control legislation.
A more recent example is the petition concerning the deportation of Piers Morgan. After criticizing American gun culture on his CNN talk show, two separate petitions were created in an attempt to convince the government to kick Morgan out of the country. There are over 100,000 signatures between the two petitions.
The multitude of petitions on the We the People website include a wide range of topics, including classifying the Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group, preserving Social Security and letting Texas secede from the United States.
According to the official White House blog, the response to and activity on We the People has been overwhelming.
“It’s by far the biggest online engagement event ever for the White House,” White House Director of Digital Strategy Macon Phillips wrote. “That’s what you call a good problem to have.”
While political engagement is excellent, the actual effectiveness of these White House petitions is debatable. The Death Star petition highlights how easy it is to troll the government website as well as the ease of creating petitions.
The program also has no verification system for creating a We the People account; people with multiple email addresses can easily make multiple accounts, and therefore can sign petitions they support multiple times.
Even one of the supposedly positive aspects of We the People, the official responses from the White House, has been criticized as “non-responsive to citizens’ concerns.” There are currently 87 official White House responses — some of which apply to multiple petitions — but they tend to be explanations as to why the White House cannot comment on a specific petition or a defense of White House policy in regards to petitions.
For a government website, user activity should not deem a program a success. For a government website that is meant to give citizens a say in American policy and legislation, the lack of responses that dictate how the White House takes these petitions into consideration when creating policies makes the website seem more or less useless.
To be fair, some responses have shown how the petitions have affected new legislation. College students will be pleased to see how the petition on reducing student loan debt has affected the income-based repayment policy. They might be even more pleased to see that a petition convinced the White House to post its secret beer recipe online.
While these are successes, they are too small for what We the People aspires to be. The program may be a step in the digital direction, but many improvements are needed before We the People starts working for the people.
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