Why Did the Alexander Aan Petition Fail? August 16, 2012

Why Did the Alexander Aan Petition Fail?

A lot of atheist groups recently tried to get people to sign a petition on behalf of Alexander Aan, the Indonesian atheist sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for the crime of… saying he’s an atheist. If we could get 25,000 signatures in a month, the Obama administration would have to respond to it and maybe they would take action in some way.

Alexander Aan

The deadline for the petition was yesterday. It got about 8,000 signatures. Well under the amount needed.

Why did it fail?

Kimberly Winston asked around and the responses are all over the place… there’s no one single answer but a hell of a lot of disappointment that we couldn’t come through for one of our own:

“It didn’t fail for lack of effort,” said Michael De Dora, CFI’s director of government affairs, the author of the petition and its first signatory. “So there is a sense of confusion right now internally about why this failed.”

So why were so few moved to action? De Dora received emails from some saying a petition would have little effect — especially one aimed at a president who already has enough religious headaches in an election year. In addition, Aan’s arrest did not attract widespread media attention, so many people may not have recognized his name. Others reported technical problems with the We The People website.

“Beyond that I am at a loss for an explanation,” De Dora said. “I simply do not know why it is the case we reached so many people and so few people signed the petition.”

I have my own thoughts on why it failed and you can read them in the article.

But if you have any ideas, now’s the time to chime in so we don’t let this happen again in the future.

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  • Deltabob

    I’m skeptical about online petitions. I think it’s a result of too many years of forums and blogs posting “petitions” about this, that, and the other. Those never had any ability to carry through on the claims in the petition – and I pretty much filed this one under the same category. Perhaps I was wrong – and maybe the site actually would have gotten this information to the White House.

  • Ken

    How about, I never even SAW the petition?

  • I know I personally struggled with whitehouse.gov to get a functional account for a good long time. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was at least a partial contributor. (I did sign, but whitehouse.gov coding is rather poor). I’m not blaming them for malfeasance, but it was a struggle.

  • vexorian

    I am not a US citizen, so I assumed I shouldn’t sign a petition to white house.org

  • kimpatsu

    You do realise that some of us are ineligible to sin the petition because we are not American, right? The reverse is true in that Hemant can’t sign Downing Street petitions. So in fact, the pool of eligible signatories is restricted to rationalists with US passports, and that’s not as great a number as the worldwide community.

  • I blame burnout over the White house petition site in general.  I did sign, but I’m less motivated to pay attention to White house petitions than I am to change.org or amnesty international e.g. 

    While we’re on the topic, you can support Pussy Riot who will be sentenced tomorrow and face 3 years in a Siberian labor camp for voicing a short peaceful protest for LGBT rights.


  • Bryan Gillis

     For me, it’s just a discontent with online petitions in general, plus a specific dissatisfaction with these whitehouse.gov petitions. The US government has (not entirely surprisingly) always simply responded to these petitions with a restatement of their prior position, or they throw it out for one of various reasons (such as because it requests a specific legal action). I often simply don’t sign petitions because I don’t see the possibility that it will do any good. Petitions are easy to ignore, even ones like this that demand a response with a certain number of signatures. I suspect if this one had gotten enough signatures, it would have merely received a boilerplate response stating the government’s commitment to human rights, promising lots of vague actions but no specific actions, and people in the government who could actually exert pressure to make a difference might not even hear about this.

  • Dan

    I didn’t have to provide any passport information to sign, althought it is just for citizens. Where does it say you need a passport to be eligible to sign?

  • when the process of contributing a signature is difficult, that can have an effect.  Other people have pointed that out.

    I’d like to add that the deadline and status of the petition could have been announced in the time leading up to that deadline.  I myself was not aware of a deadline, and had not heard about this for a while (or maybe the info was in some very long post, I tend not to read long posts).

    Maybe something like:

    “In X ammount of time, we have gathered Y ammount of signatures.  Only Z ammount of time remains, and W signatures are still needed.  For those of you with voter apathy, who thought that the rest of the community would fix this, they have not.  It is time for you to step up.  There are thousands of you, only your imagined lack of power is stopping you.”

  • Wim

    In the case of Jessica Ahlquist there was no citizenship restriction on supporting her or contributing to her scholarship. As others have said, this petition was limited to Americans (to my frustration).

    However, if the Reason Rally can get together ca. 20.000 people (most of them presumably Americans) and basically the same channels of communication were used to let people know about that gathering (I assume), then you do have to wonder why Americans didn’t sign the petition in higher numbers.

    Was any effort made to get other organisations, besides the atheist/skeptic/freethinker ones, to spread the message among  their members, e.g. human rights organisations, religious organisations, etc.?

  • John L

    I’m baffled as to why it didn’t get more support.  The American Humanist Association posted a plea on its Facebook page for signatures and I noticed several responses expressing the view that it was none of our (Americans) business.  Each of these responses were “liked” by multiple people.  At least one of these people seemed to be indicating a fear that if we (Americans) stirred up trouble in a predominately Muslim country we would get attacked again.  I was disappointed on several levels to see that many  people apparently agreed.  The other negative responders took the position that there were so many injustices in the world that we shouldn’t be bothered with this individual far away in another country.  I just don’t get it.

  • Zed Zero

    It went under my radar. I guess my head got really polluted with Freethought Blogs and their incessant bickering. I am deleting it and moving on.

  • Adam Budda

    Honestly, I didn’t bother because those petitions on WH.gov are a joke. Every major one over serious issues in the last few months that gets steam behind it gets deleted by the admins. As far as I can tell, signing petitions at WH.gov is like standing on a street corner with a sign.

  • Anonymous User

    I would think that only Muricans could sign a white house petition. Therefore I didn’t sign.

  • Matthew Prorok

    The website for the petition was the problem.  It’s a pain to get signed into, and as I’ve noted in my own blog posts in the past, it doesn’t ever seem to get much done.  The administration seems to be taking it as an opportunity to tell us what their platform is, just repeating information we could find via a Google search, rather than actually doing anything.



  • Chris

    I never  heard of the petition until now. You would think since it was an atheist issue it would have gotten more attention on an atheist website, but lately it seems LBGT issues are more important. 

  • 1000 Needles

    I agree with others here. The White House petition website is a joke.

    Do you really think that petitions don’t get noticed until they hit their magic 25,000 signatures? Admins have deleted inconvenient petitions well before they reached their quota, and the responses to successful petitions have been milquetoast at best.

    If the U.S. federal government actually had an interest in intervening on behalf of Alexander Aan, they would have already acted.

    The effort spent channelling supporters to the petition page would have been better spent on a legal defense fund, Amnesty Int’l fundraising, or grassroots awareness campaign.

    We can add WH.gov petitions to the same list as prayer under “well-intentioned actions with no demonstrable effect.”

  • Karen Locke

    I signed the petition, though it took a bit of wrangling with the site to get an account.  It isn’t going to win awards for user-friendliness.  I saw countless mentions of the petition on blogs and FB friends I do read.  At the same time, I, like others, suspect that even if the petition had garnered the requisite number of signatures, it would’ve been swept under some rug somewhere.

  • Ben Adair

    Honestly, it’s a little baffling to me how an online petition failure can be shocking to anyone.  As others have said, anything of interest or importance that is approved at the White House site is either scuttled and not answered, or given a boilerplate response.  Has any petition through that site ever generated anything of consequence off the website (mentioned in a speech, brought up on the floor of the House or Senate, garnered media attention, etc)?
    The atheist community can be rallied to good causes, and Alexander’s is certainly one, but the proposed solution to this case was, frankly, pointless.  Imagine if this is what was recommended we do to support Jessica Ahlquist.  “An atheist teenager is trying to force her school to remove a prayer banner.  Sign the petition to make the President say whether he supports her or not.”  What in the world is the point?  I understand that Alexander’s case is wildly different, and yes there is geographical distance that might make some not respond as intensely as they would if it were happening in their own country, but this action has little to no real-life impact.
    The fundraising to pay for his legal defense is excellent.  A letter writing campaign to congress-people urging them to support Alexander is good.  Helping Amnesty International or other such groups promote Alexander’s cause is good.
    Signing a petition on the White House page is equal to a Facebook status update urging all your friends to make the same update on their statuses, which will of course end world hunger/poverty/war/AIDS/cancer/discrimination/etc.

  • I’ve not seen the slightest indication that petitions have any effect at all, other than to make the signer feel a little better. I’ve received online petitions for years, and have signed many… but there’s not the slightest evidence that any of them influenced policy at all. I pretty much ignore all of them now.

    I don’t think you can get the government involved in something like this unless you can get a Congressman or Senator to champion the cause. Online petitions are useless.

  • Octoberfurst

    I too had trouble getting an account at Whitehouse.gov.

  • It was a petition on the internet.

  • The Dustball

    I didn’t bother as I felt like the administration would just ignore it. The whole “25000 and he’ll have to look at it” rang hollow with me. Just seemed fruitless from the outset. Too far removed.

  • kimpatsu

    It’s hyperbole; I’m saying that you need to be a US citizen to sign, and not everyone who wants to sign is therefore eligible.

  • Yukimi

    I read the tiny print of the website and it said you couldn’t participate if you weren’t a US citizen and I’m spanish so …

  • Myatheistlife

    I can tell you why I didn’t sign it… I was unaware of the petition. Somehow I missed it and simply did not know. One of my posts is about my ‘give a damns’ and this one item did not make it inside the range of my give a damns. Had I become aware of the petition I would have signed.

  • I could not sign it, being outside the USA

  •  you must have your head in a hole then! The petition was linked everywhere.

  • GodlessPoutine

    I would have signed but I’m a Canadian.  I wrote the Minister of Foreign Affairs here on his behalf instead and that got me no traction.  I honestly had a hard time figuring out what to sign.

  • Gus Snarp

    My thoughts:

    1. People who have used the White House petition site are by now familiar with how it works: if a petition addresses an issue the White House was already planning to, or already had, acted on, then it gets acted on and a statement is issued about how the White House has taken action. Otherwise, no matter how reasonable and non-partisan the issue, it gets a token, boilerplate response that doesn’t actually even address the nature of the petition. In short, people are fed up with the site because there’s a ton of evidence to suggest that whatever is proposed will simply be ignored.

    2. The White House petition site requires a registration process that some people are uncomfortable with. People are more likely to sign an online petition when there is one step of providing a little information and it’s done, they don’t want to have to go through a separate account creation process.

    3. 8,000 people isn’t bad. When the White House petition site was started, the threshold to get attention was 5,000. It was raised to 25,000 expressly to reduce the number of petitions they had to respond to. Admittedly, some of the things getting through at the earlier threshold were downright silly, but the bar was made high because they knew they looked bad sending out all these token responses to a large number of petitions and wanted to reduce the number of petitions they had to respond to.

  • I thought about signing the petition, but ultimately decided it was not a good use of my time going through that site again.  However much I support Aan, if Im going to put effort in to helping the situation I want to do so in a way that will show results.  I do not trust the White House petition site do show results over anything.  If there was a petition there to have the president say that puppies were cute or some other action that nobody could disagree with, I dont think it would have any more effect than this petition did.

  • B-Lar

    I wanted to, but I couldnt because I am not American.

    I would be interested to see what the repsonse would be if another petition was raised, with similar coverage, and the opportunity to write a note saying “why did you not sign the  whitehouse petition?” Make it user friendly, and see how many signatories you get.

    It would have been great to get Obama to come down on Aans side, but I suspect that the whitehouse dosent care about such things anyway.

  • Thomas Farrell

    My two reasons:

    1) Every whitehouse.com petition I’ve seen that has “succeeded” has obtained a wishy-washy meaningless response that, if you read it carefully, uses a lot of flowery language to say “we’re not going to do anything.” So why should I spend my time when I believe they don’t care?

    2) When the issue seems important enough, and this one did, I’ll try to sign it anyway, but for some reason I always seem to have a great deal of difficulty getting into my petition signing account to do so. The password is never what I thought it was (which is not a problem I generally have on other accounts) and I have a hard time getting the change process to work with that site. 

  • Manufan420

    this is the first time ive heard anything about it.im on line everyday

  • Leif, Denmark

    As I commented below the article:I would have liked to sign it too, but I am not a US citizen.

  • Actually (and I was surprised to find this) you don’t have to be a US citizen to sign White House petitions.  Now, I’m not sure if they toss your signature or not, but I know a Canadian who signed the Aan petition.

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