Avaaz, 38 Degrees and direct democracy

Following a class discussion with a campaigner from Azaaz, I considered the opportunities such campaigning organisations might offer for ‘fixing’ democracy.

Is democracy broken? The recent referendum for Scottish independence aside, figures on voting and public perception of politics have been becoming dismal.

Image courtesy of statgeek.co.uk, published 9th May 2014

Image courtesy of statgeek.co.uk, published 9th May 2014


Contrast this with numbers involved in petitions/campaign actions – Avaaz has almost 40 million members, and 38 Degrees’ website shows that over 17 million actions have been taken. “Actions” include signing petitions, donating to ad campaigns and writing directly to power holders.

These organisations could be accused of fostering ‘slacktivism’, the idea that by simply clicking a petition, actors are not really changing anything other than smugness. But really, how active is putting a cross in a box and allowing somebody else to make decisions on your behalf for 5 years?!

Avaaz and 38 Degrees et all can bridge the perceived gap between the electorate and the elected, by showing popular support or condemnation (usually the latter) for policies. They also prove that people can be engaged in politics. One example is the 38 Degrees “Save Our Forests” campaign, which attracted over 500,000 petition signatures amongst lots of other member-directed action.

It should be easier to direct politicians’ work than emailing, calling, attending surgeries. They could come to the electorate using new communications in the same way as these organisations. Could politicians use new media to get directly in touch with electorate to float ideas or ask specifically how to vote on key parliamentary decisions? Arguably this would increase the accountability of our politicians and restore some legitimacy to the political structures we have in the UK.

On a theoretical level, this could be a form of reverting back to pre-modern campaigning type/governance as described by Norris [1], taking politics away from the lobbyists, and returning it to the electorate’s hands.


1. Norris, P (2000), “A Virtuous Circle: Political Communications in Post-Industrial Societies”, Cambridge University Press


9 thoughts on “Avaaz, 38 Degrees and direct democracy

  1. I believe that more then highlights the distance between the electorate and the elected, the success of the online petitions evidences the incredulity of the citizens about institutions (In Castells’words, there is “a crisis of political legitimacy”).
    After all, it is not that difficult to send an email to a congressman, or to fill an electronic form on the site of a public institution (lots of then offer mechanisms of civil participation online). The issue is that people don’t believe that they will be listened.
    Fortunately, citizens have found an alternative strategy to make their voice heard. Active or passive action it is not necessary the main issue about petitions online. It seems fair to say that, usually, in all social mobilizations there are people with different levels of engagement.
    The issue that concerns me about epetiticions is the possible lack of information. Are people aware of the content of the petition that they are signing? Do they know which impact it will have in their lives? There was enough discussion about the subject?


    • sarageorgina says:

      Hi Statgeek

      I’m sorry – this is an assessed blog for my Uni course and we were advised that providing a link would be OK reference-wise. I didn’t think to contact you, my apologies!
      Would you like me to remove it?



  2. Hi Sara. I was less bothered about the use of the image, rather than the linking to it. It called hot-linking, and it uses my bandwidth when your readers view it on your site. It’s bad form. :))

    The solution is quite simple. Save a copy of your own (http://www.statgeek.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/uk-ge10-votes-coal-elec.png), and upload it to the blog, or upload to a file host or host it yourself. I appreciate the effort to attribute my site. If you’re going to use it for a Uni project, I suggest you use the following citation:

    Image courtesy of statgeek.co.uk

    and make the word statgeek link to the source page (http://www.statgeek.co.uk/elections/general-election-2010-uk/)

    If it’s of interest, the publish date was 9th May 2014.


    For what it’s worth, if we’re to ‘fix democracy’, it’s quite simple. As a Scot who was active in the independence referendum, I saw how politicians didn’t panic until they saw things turning against them. The only way to make a nation more democratic is to turnout in droves, engage with the politicians, and challenge them to produce the goods. When we let them, politicians take us for granted. The simple answer is to keep them terrified, by not promising them your vote until the day of the election. (all in my humble opinion, of course)

    Best of luck with the Uni thing.


    • sarageorgina says:

      Oh, I’m so sorry, I wasn’t aware it would use your bandwidth. I will amend now – apologies I’m not the most tech-savvy 🙂 And thanks for the permission! I will try hosting it myself and amend the citation now.

      Your thoughts on fixing democracy are really interesting, particularly in context of the referendum so thanks for your contribution (I agree; here in England we didn’t hear much about it until they all started panicking!). Low turnouts are also a problem partly because they lessen the mandate the Government has, so when they are putting through unpopular policies it raises big questions about legitimacy.

      I think keeping politicians on their toes is really important. I do like the idea of not promising your vote till the last minute, but then the vast majority of us aren’t asked who we’re voting for, so would they know you weren’t promised to any party yet do you think? The right to real recall was vital, in my opinion, but the Government didn’t go for it (unfortunately/inevitably?!). Also I think had we voted for AV a few years back then politicians would have to work much harder for our votes. It definitely needs work, whatever the solution!



  3. It is undeniable that there is a great success when it comes to the participation of people to petitions. Even though there are many people who are against these actions as they think that people who support them are actually passive , I think that for sure they are not.

    Petitions are a way for people to support action and express their grievancies about specific issues that they wanna change.When it comes to politics on the other hand, it is true that people feel that their voices are not heard as there is no direct communication with their politicians.The most annoying thing is that even though many politicians for example in Greece, have their own personal accounts on many social media such as Facebook and Twitter in order to promote a more human side of themselves,at the end they never reply to any comments of their followers.Thus politicians need to understand that social media are not just a “profile” but a way in order to interact with the others.

    As political legitimacy is in crisis and people do not trust politicians anymore, politicians need to conform to the new technological changes,in order to rebuilt their relationship with people.They need to use social media, not only as a tool during their campaigns before elections, but in general as a way to listen to the voices of people.


    • sarageorgina says:

      Thanks for your comment Nikki!

      You’re right, there’s so much debate on whether e-campaigning is effective and important – I’m actually finishing up a little post on slacktivism right now! I personally think it’s better to engage people on the level they can get on board with than to not bother in favour of only ‘big’, serious actions. Especially when people are turning away for the traditional ways to engage like actually voting.

      I think maybe the ‘political machine’ sees the social media profiles of politicians as another way of spinning them and creating a persona desirable to the electorate – but perhaps forgets/fails to capitalise on the fact that social media is different to tv, papers and ‘old’ media in that it’s interactive. People are able to speak directly with celebrities and companies so why not politicians!?

      Saying that, social media can be really risky for politician trying to be too real – remember Emily Thornberry and her #Rochester tweet!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s