Positivity and Online Petitions

Online activists might want to emphasize hope and progress over gloom and doom if they want to convince more people to support their causes.

WANT MORE PEOPLE to sign that online petition in support of your cause or political candidate? Make sure its message is framed in a positive way. Petitions that try to win public support with complaints, strong moral beliefs, or exaggerated language might actually have the opposite effect.

Five assistant professors of information systems recently published a study on how the success of online petitions is affected by the cognitive, emotional, and moral linguistic tone of their appeal. The co-authors include Yan Chen of Florida International University’s College of Business in Miami; Shuyuan Deng of Grand Valley State University’s Seidman College of Business in Grand Rapids, Michigan; Dong-Heon Kwak of Kent State University’s College of Business Administration in Ohio; Ahmed Elnoshokaty of Northern Michigan University’s College of Business in Marquette; and Jiao Wu of the Northern Illinois University College of Business in DeKalb.

In their examination of 45,377 online petitions collected from Change.org, the researchers found that petitions with the least number of signatures, falling in the bottom 25 percent of the sample, used words such as “right” and “God” far more often than petitions in the top 25 percent.

People also were less likely to sign petitions that used too much data or hyperbolic language such as “large” or “enormous.” In contrast, more people signed petitions presented in a straightforward “breaking news” style

Activist groups have increasingly shifted from using in-person canvassing to using online methods to obtain petition signatures. While online canvassing helps activists reach larger audiences, it prevents them from using facial expressions or body language to persuade people to support their causes. Nor can they adjust their tone when others are irritated by the way their arguments are presented, says Chen.

At a time when the public is being bombarded by negative political messages, people tend to be more responsive to positively framed arguments, Chen adds. “Although language expressing anger and frustration may attract attention to the severity of the underlying issues, a petition cannot be simply a complaint,” she says. “It should focus more on the positive outcomes that could be accomplished by the proposed change.”

“A Multi-Appeal Model of Persuasion for Online Petition Success: A Linguistic Cue-Based Approach” was published in the March 2019 issue of the Journal of the Association for Information Systems.