Liam Stokes

When it comes to online petitions, facts should speak louder than clicks. Sadly, they don’t

When it comes to online petitions, facts should speak louder than clicks. Sadly, they don't
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Do we live in a ‘post-truth’, ‘post-factual’ political era? A small part of the answer has been provided by Welsh Assembly Member Mike Hedges, who said recently that ‘factual inaccuracies are a matter of opinion’. Oh dear. I’d say that is fairly clear evidence that at least in some corners of our political discourse, we are indeed post-factual. But what is even more worrying is the context in which Hedges made this extraordinary comment, because it marks the meeting of two new trends in our democracy: post factual politics, and the petition.

The rise of petitions as a factor in our public life is not an inherently bad thing. They certainly have value as a tool for concerned individuals to raise issues that they feel are important but are receiving scant government attention. But the problems arise when petitions are not started by individuals or communities, but by lobby groups – and it’s here that the collision with post-truth politics occurs. It is not terribly hard to sign a petition: a couple of mouse clicks and your participation in mass democracy is all done.

Moving people to undertake this simple task is becoming a specialism of the animal rights movement, for whom petitions are a bit of a gift. Their memberships are small, but their ability to influence the behaviour of people on social media is disproportionately large. Many people on Twitter have neither the time nor the inclination to learn about countryside management issues, but show them a picture of a dead animal, a lurid statement and a catchy hashtag, and you can often provoke a response. And if that response is to sign a petition that may catch the attention of government, does it really matter if the lurid statement is actually true?

This strategy is currently being deployed against driven grouse shooting, an activity that underpins conservation and economic activity across our uplands, but is the subject of a petition that wants to see it banned. This petition, shared across Twitter by assorted campaigning groups, TV presenters and rock stars, has received the 100,000 signatures required to trigger a Westminster debate. Last week I was called to give oral evidence to the Petitions Committee to inform MPs ahead of the debate scheduled to take place in Westminster Hall. So I have a very particular interest in facts speaking louder than clicks on a petition.

Which all brings us back to Mr Hedges AM. He was commenting on a petition lodged by the League Against Cruel Sports – a petition that sought to ban the sale, use and manufacture of snares in Wales. This may or may not be a policy you agree with (though we would strongly suggest you shouldn’t), but anyone with the slightest grasp of numeracy, or of reality, could see that the information being used to support the petition was total nonsense.

The League’s headline stat claimed that: ‘In Wales, some 370,000 animals are snared every year. That’s more than 1,000 a day’. Very dramatic. The problem is that reasonable estimates of fox, badger and hare put the combined Welsh population at 115,000. So the League was alleging that over three times the population of Welsh mammals were being snared in Wales every year.

We wrote to the Petitions Committee to point out the obvious inaccuracy. We explained how the League had reached these incredible figures and why their method of doing so was scientifically invalid, but we needn’t have bothered ­– anyone can see that it is impossible to catch more mammals than actually exist, and harder still to do so every year. Our contention was that the signatures on this particular petition had been gathered under false pretences, and so were invalid. One could go further – surely numbers of signatures are irrelevant if what they are calling for flies in the face of the evidence?

Not so, it would seem. It was as the Welsh Assembly’s Petitions Committee considered the League’s claims that Mr Hedges uttered his fateful comment. He went on to say that the Committee were ‘not meant to act as jury on people’s petitions. They’ve got a right to submit if they meet the criteria’. In other words, the key question is not the facts of the matter (these, of course, are a matter of opinion), but the ability to accrue signatures and submit them appropriately.

Maybe we aren’t in a ‘post-truth’ era just yet, but if we end up in one this will be how we get there. Politicians already overreact to a hundred emails in their inbox, seemingly oblivious to the minute fraction of their constituency that such correspondence represents. If petitions are to be considered reflections of public opinion regardless of the unscrupulous means their supporters use to secure signatures, and if these signatures are to be considered more important than pesky facts, just imagine the depths to which public debate in this county could descend.

Politicians have a chance to stop this now, by doing precisely what Mr Hedges told his Committee they mustn’t do – acting as a jury on people’s petitions. Only a return to a healthy scepticism will keep the growing enthusiasm for petitions from pushing politics through the looking glass.

Liam Stokes is head of shooting campaigns at the Countryside Alliance.