Just sign here – it sounds right

If 52 million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing. So says Anatole France, and I’m sure you agree. However, if 52 million people say it, there is a good chance that it will be on the front page of most newspapers.

Democracy is a fine thing – or if not a fine thing, the best thing we’ve got to run a country. Dictators might do it more efficiently, but they tend to lack perspective. The trains run on time, but people go missing.

Sadly, however, the democratic process always delivers a government that many people would prefer was not governing. That is the way it works. For democracy to succeed, those who lose out have to be willing to accept it.

This can be extremely frustrating, particularly when the issues are crucial. And this why many people resort to marching, striking, random action – or, more frequently, joining an online pressure group, like Avaaz.

These pressure groups gather thousands if not millions of signatures for petitions that aim to bypass the normal democratic system and “shame” politicians into giving them what they want.

If big business behaves like this, it is clearly a bad thing. But if people like you and I do it, surely that’s just having our say in a reasonable way?

No, it’s the same thing. Only the voices are different.

But surely we’re right, and they’re wrong?

We like to think we’re right, of course, and sometimes we are. The trouble with online pressure groups is the assumption that they are always backing the right horse.

But often petitions are created that attract huge numbers of votes when the organisers, let alone those who sign, have no expertise whatsoever in the subject at hand. Key phrases are enough to get people to sign, rather in the way that when a friend on Facebook asks you to “like” their page, most people barely hesitate, let alone look at it.

What are these phrases? “Climate change” is an obvious one (ignoring the fact that no-one says the climate isn’t changing); “genetically engineering of crops” is another; so are “a free NHS” and “lower speed limits”. There are many others.

This week some whales got beached and died in eastern England. Someone scrawled “Man’s fault” on one of them, and I can’t help thinking that he or she is typical of those who sign online petitions. A whale has died; so somehow it must be our fault, or the fault of some huge corporation somewhere, or genetically modified sea water.

We have a right to protest, and I am certainly not saying that everyone who signs online petitions does so irresponsibly. But while we have a right to protest, we also have a duty not to sign just anything that is put before us, simply because it sounds right; not to march before we understand (in detail) why; and not to strike against the public without checking to see if there is a more effective way of hurting whoever is actually in the wrong.

Democracy is a fine thing – but it needs a bit of thought. In general, crowds don’t do much thinking.