A Brexit backlash is taking over the internet. A petition calling for parliament to revoke Article 50 – the rule which means the UK will leave the European Union on March 29 – and remain in the EU, has gained a huge number of signatures and keeps getting more supporters.
At the time of writing, signatories numbered 936,151, but the petition passed one million signatures at 2:54pm. A tweet from the Petitions Committee, a cross-party group of MPs appointed by House of Commons, revealed this to be the fastest rate of signing for any petition.
The petition’s initiator, former college lecturer Margaret Anne Georgiadou, told the BBC that she "became like every other Remainer – very frustrated that we've been silenced and ignored for so long”. For a month after the petition started, on February 20, it only slowly added signatures. But it became wildly popular last night, after Theresa May defiantly announced that she would not ask the EU for a long extension of the negotiating period, effectively making crashing out with no deal or accepting her deal with Europe the only options left.
"It's almost like a dam bursting, because we've been held back in a sense – it's almost like last chance saloon now," Georgiadou said. Between 08:00 and 09:00 today, the petition was being shared on Twitter at a rate of 567 tweets and retweets a minute, according to Pulsar, an audience intelligence platform. It spread worldwide as a top trending topic on Twitter.
"Content typically starts to go viral on Twitter, where the retweet button facilitates super-easy sharing," explains Jay Owens of Pulsar. "Facebook virality is a slower beast, as the feed is algorithmic and people usually won't see a friend's post for hours-to-a-day after it's been posted. However, as many more people use Facebook than Twitter, it ultimately takes the lead and drives the vast majority of signups." That's currently happening - though we're only on day one of virality.
The petition has crashed the UK parliament’s petitions website after receiving more than 900,000 signatures, most of those coming in just a few hours. It is far and away the site’s most-signed current petition, outstripping a request to ban Islamic State fighters from returning to the UK, which has around 582,000 signatures.
The speed of the petition’s spread has caught everyone off-guard – including the team behind the backend of the petitions website. According to Andrew White, chief technology officer of Unboxed, which built the website for parliament, the petitions website crashed because calculating the trending count (which shows how many signatures were added in the last hour) overloaded the database running the petition.
Around 60,000 signatures were being added to the petition every hour last night, while by mid-morning today that number had tripled to 180,000. Unboxed’s own website showing a map of the constituencies that have signed the petition is struggling under the load.
The Open Data Institute (ODI) Leeds has been digging into the demographic data of the petition (and others hosted on parliament’s website) before it went offline this morning. “We've found that some [petitions] are very popular in small areas,” says Tom Forth of ODI Leeds. “For example, petitions about protecting Staffordshire Bull Terriers are popular in Staffordshire.”
The latest petition to revoke Article 50 is popular in remain-voting areas, particularly London, Bristol West, Cambridge and Manchester. The "Leave the EU without a deal in March 2019" petition, set up late last year, has proven popular in leave-voting areas, including the north of England. Key constituencies with the highest number of signatories include Boston and Skegness, and Folkestone and Hythe. Forth points out that the two are polar opposites in terms of the majority of signatories. The no-deal petition, which closes early in April, only has around 370,000 signatures – less than half the amount the new petition does.
No parliamentary petition verifies whether a signatory’s identity or location are correct, though only a handful of obviously joke signatures (including from North Korea) have been found among the hundreds of thousands of respondents to the Article 50 revocation petition.
The petition has had a relatively slow burn, but has recently been bolstered by social media, says Owens. Pulsar data shows that the petition has been shared 212,000 times on Twitter from its launch through until 12:00 today, and 603,000 times on Facebook. More people have shared the petition than signed it in part due to the friction required to complete it. “It's quicker to share the petition than to actually sign it,” Owens says. “Actual signups are likely to lag the social media sharing by minutes or hours, as a consequence,” she says, “but this means we're likely to see continued petitions growth over the course of the day.”
The top referrers to the petition via social media are Brian Cox, Hugh Grant and Heidi Allen, according to Crowdtangle data. But other people are sharing it on “dark social” platforms that can’t be easily tracked, such as email and WhatsApp.
“Signing an online petition can be argued to be ‘clicktivism’ and largely symbolic,” Owens says. “The parliamentary debate this will generate is unlikely to be the deciding vote, let's be honest. However, there could be some interesting consequences nonetheless.”
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