Petitions, politics and public pressure

The next big threat to field sports might not be rising costs or Draconian laws, but online petitions, says editor-in-chief Peter Carr

If you haven’t seen it already, a rather disturbing news story has surfaced on the Countryside Alliance website. Called ‘Lies, damn lies and petitions’, I thoroughly recommend reading it yourself when you get a spare 10 minutes, but the gist of it is that the founder of online petition platform 38 Degrees has been sacked for gross misconduct.

He was given the boot for providing illegal drugs to his staff – but the more interesting discussion this has sparked, and what has been explored well in the Countryside Alliance piece, is how 38 Degrees, and other sites like it, use social media databases to boost the number of responses to their petitions – generating large numbers in a comparatively short time. 

One example relevant to a field sports audience is the petition to ban pheasant shooting on Welsh public land, which the creators claimed attracted 12,706 signatures.

However, a Countryside Alliance Freedom of Information request revealed that 80 per cent of those signatures did not have a Welsh address, and 8 per cent didn’t live in the UK at all.

The environment minister overruled their own statutory advisor, Natural Resources Wales, to implement the ban, and while we don’t know if the petition to ban it was instrumental in their decision, when most of its respondents are outside the minister’s sphere of responsibility it’s hardly a solid piece of evidence to factor into ministerial decision-making, is it?

Another exmaple is the Scottish Environment minister citing ‘public concern and doubts’ when it restricted the number of dogs that could be used to flush foxes, despite the Lord Bonomy review of hunting legislation stating that such restrictions could “seriously compromise” effective pest control. 

When the analysis of the consultation on the matter was made public, the reference to “public concern” turned out to be based on – you guessed it – online sources. The CA are damning in their analysis: “The consultation received 18,787 responses of which 18,497 (98%) came through five different organised email campaigns.

The remaining 290 ‘substantive’ (i.e. personal) responses were submitted by 25 organisations and 265 individuals. A further Freedom of Information request confirmed that the Scottish Government cannot identify those responsible for the 18,497 email responses.

The Scottish Government has no idea who these people are, where they are from or even if they actually exist. In reality 260 identifiable people responded with a fairly even split for those seeking change and those opposing it.”

I cannot be the only one that finds politicians’ unquestioning acceptance of online petition data disturbing. As the Countryside Alliance FOIs have shown, many of these responses can – and frequently do – come from areas and people that have no real stake in the issue at hand, and no livelihood on the line when it comes to shutting down or restricting vital rural industries.

While online campaigns and petitions undoubtedly have the potential to be a real force for good, giving people across the country a chance to make their voice heard and get their concerns addressed at a national level, there needs to be an understanding that firstly, opinion shouldn’t outweigh careful, considered scientific analysis on a subject, and secondly, the people whose voices count for most on an issue are those that will be most affected by any decisions taken on it.

The two examples mentioned above, in which political decisions were influenced or supported by spurious gauges of ‘public opinion’, revealed that no apparent effort was made to verify the validity of the information by either of the government institutions who should be acting in the national interest. It’s damn right outrageous.

In this modern world of cyber warfare and social media manipulation on the global stage, it’s easy to overlook that the same methods being used to influence and indeed topple governments are being used against us and our way of life.

All credit must go to the Countryside Alliance. They are a proactive organisation, recognised the threat, and cut it off at the pass. The CA must be applauded for that. 

Keep the faith!

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