Why the White House Loves Your Death Star Petition

The White House petition drive offers a big megaphone for quirky causes. It’s also helping Obama advance his political agenda.

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Illustrations by Peter Arkle for TIME

Oh, no. not this. Not on the White House website, the pristine digital seat of the most powerful office in the U.S. It’s unseemly, absurd, hypocritical. Barack Obama says he wants to elevate the public discourse, yet here he is, hosting the loons and the radicals, the pranksters and the protesters. Anyone with Internet access can put a petition on the federal mainframe. Get enough signatures and the staff of the President of the United States—the people juggling debt crises, immigration reform and terrorist assassinations—will take time to respond to you.

There are petitions to impeach Obama. To legalize pot. To fire U.S. Attorneys. To try Senator Dianne Feinstein for treason. To recount the 2012 election. To take God out of the U.S. motto. To allow eight states to secede from the union. (More than 350,000 people signed those.) “Do it fast,” said Fox News’ Shepard Smith when he told viewers to sign a petition to declare the day after the Super Bowl a federal holiday. Some 34,000 Star Wars fans petitioned the U.S. government to build a Death Star. The official White House response: “The Administration does not support blowing up planets.” Really.

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So the clamor grows. A half-dozen news websites run “Top 10 Most Ridiculous White House Petitions” stories. Someone has started a petition to end petitions. Another petition seeks to make petition responses better. And how do the President’s aides respond? Do they admit defeat and pull up the drawbridge? Actually, they couldn’t be happier. From where they are sitting, they are winning. Everything is on track. Web traffic is through the roof, with nearly 10 million signatures now on file. That figure doubled in two months. “We wanted a system that is as open as possible so people can use it as they will,” says Macon Phillips, the White House digital director running the effort. “I see the openness of the system absolutely as a strength.”

But there’s a method in all this madness. Consider: Once upon a time, Presidents could talk to the whole nation at will. Thirty years ago, 50 million people watched the nightly news on TV. Now not even half that many do. And whole segments of the public have walled themselves off. How can Obama reach Rush Limbaugh’s audience, except through Rush Limbaugh? How does he talk to his friends and opponents who care passionately about public policy but would never tune in to the State of the Union or even his Inaugural Address?

This was the thought that helped launch the petition system, We the People, back in September of 2011. It started as little more than a whiteboard jot in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, a simple idea to get millions of Americans to contribute to the White House website. Imagine a scenario in which a gun-rights group starts a petition to tell Obama not to confiscate guns. “Wouldn’t it be great if we had the opportunity to respond to all these people directly and say we are not interested in doing that at all?” the White House staff mused. It would be a new digital main line to opponents, a way around organizations like the National Rifle Association. Here’s the key. There are two sides to every petition: one seen—the public petition—and one unseen—the list of e-mail addresses it generates. When you sign a petition, you implicitly agree that the White House has a right to communicate with you about that matter by e-mail. That’s why this works at 1600 Penn.

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Gutenberg on Steroids
On Dec. 23, a talk-radio host named Alex Jones takes to the airwaves. He is no friend of Obama’s. He says the President “lies about everything.” He says “they want to take our guns to enslave us.” His audience is huge—millions a week—and his whole show is about resisting “globalist tyranny.” What does resistance look like today? He says, Go to the White House website. He calls on his listeners to petition for the deportation of Piers Morgan, the CNN talk-show host who supports gun control. (The network is owned by the same company that owns Time.) “Understand why we did this,” Jones says later that day in an online video. “We are defending our constitutional republic.”

Before long, more than 100,000 Jones listeners have given over their e-mail addresses. Tens of thousands more visit the site for other gun-related petitions. The public has self-organized. Obama’s staff is overjoyed. The President records his own video response. “I believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms,” he says, looking straight at the camera. “The fact is, most gun owners in America are responsible.” Boom. Message delivered. Nearly 400,000 people watch the video, about 10 times the online traffic Obama gets for a regular weekly address. And many of them are the right people, the ones the President could not reach before. When his computer team polls the Piers Morgan petitioners, nearly half the respondents say Obama’s answer was helpful. One in four say they learned something new. The discourse has been elevated.

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Jones is pleased as well. It was never about deporting Morgan anyway. “It’s about the spectacle,” he says. “What we have done with the petition is simply use it as a way to get our issues out and hack and hijack Joseph Goebbels’ operation.” He means the White House. Just look at all the press coverage the Morgan petition generated. Viral sharing on Facebook. Newspaper headlines. This magazine right now. Morgan, as yet undeported, even invited Jones onto his show. The White House petition system, it turns out, can be a launching pad, a new public square. So Jones is pushing new petitions, like the one to try Feinstein for treason. Vote the public debate into existence. Just sign a petition.

And we are still in the early stages. Chances are, this thing keeps growing. The trend lines look like a rocket launch. The European Union has started its own online petition system. The British Parliament has one as well. The White House has released the source code for its software, so any government anywhere can use it now. Look for your members of Congress, mayors, governors and city councils to embrace the technology. The cost is negligible, and the rewards are clear. In exchange for promising a response to popular petitions—not a position change, a response—a politician gets the chance to communicate directly with constituents. Both sides win.

In fact, both sides have been winning for centuries. “It’s old wine in new bottles,” says David Zaret, a professor at Indiana University who wrote a book on the history of petitions. In ancient Mesopotamia they were known as “letter prayers” and written on clay tablets. In Imperial China and early modern Japan, leaders kept petition boxes to receive complaints. The great codes of Roman law were compilations of petition responses. Then, with the introduction of the printing press, petitions became something else: not just a deferential request to authorities but a tool for amassing and shaping public opinion. Think of the Declaration of Independence, signed by 56 guys and addressed to King George III because “Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.” It was printed in a broadside and widely distributed among the 13 colonies, uniting a nascent nation. The Internet is Gutenberg on steroids, a printing press without ink, overhead or delivery costs.

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A New Role
This is the thing Obama wants to figure out in his second term. The old community organizer already knows how to harness online groups to get elected. “We now need to translate that more to how our government works,” he told Time back in August. In his Inaugural Address, he sent the message. “You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time,” he said, “not only with the votes we cast but the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideas.” One route for doing that is his new political operation, Organizing for Action. It’s a nonprofit controlled by former Obama staffers who have inherited his campaign’s vast field operation. It aims to bring campaign-style tactics to the fights over governing. That means door knocks, phone calls and paid media targeting vulnerable members of both parties who get in the way of the Obama agenda.

Petitions play a role here as well. Consider the friendly petition and the openings it creates. In 2011 the White House received multiple petitions demanding immigration reform, a priority for Obama. So the White House organized a conference call between petitioners and policy folks to show engagement. It will keep sending updates as the fight over reform continues. After the Humane Society pushed its supporters to petition for new regulations on breeders who sell dogs online, a move Obama supports, the White House was able to direct petitioners to an ongoing rulemaking process at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Petitions have sometimes forced the White House to respond when it otherwise might have stayed silent. Activists upset over a Hollywood effort to increase copyright rules online petitioned the White House in 2011 to issue a veto threat. As a result of the petition, the White House issued a statement laying out concerns about the Hollywood approach, contributing to the bill’s defeat in the Senate. Even the Build the Death Star petition drove huge traffic spikes on federal websites, not just to the response but to all the space-science programs it linked to. Nearly 100,000 people clicked to find out more about how to spot the International Space Station when it flies over their neighborhood.

With traffic growing, the White House raised the limit this year on the number of signatures required for a response, from 25,000 to 100,000. It still doesn’t matter how silly or challenging the request. All that matters is that it is on a subject federal government can do something about. All that matters is that it motivates multitudes.

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