Those who like R. Kelly also like International Hernia Awareness Day: White House petitions as a social network

Chris Wilson

By Chris Wilson

Meet "E.F." of Vienna, Va., the most civically active person in America.

There are currently 352 petitions on the White House’s We the People site, where users create petitions and vie for the administration’s attention by gathering digital signatures. As of Thursday afternoon, E. F. had signed 173 of them.

The White House does not identify petitioners beyond their initials and location, so we don’t know the identity of E.F. in ZIP code 22180. We do know that E.F. supports the following causes and organizations: Legalizing marijuana, gun control, government-subsidized maternity leave, the abolition of the penny, wrestling, International Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia Awareness Day, NASA, marching bands, work permits for H4 visa holders, the Lunar New Year, and about 160 other causes.

The petitions on We the People usually make news for their jejune absurdity. Nearly 9,000 people support changing the national anthem to R. Kelly's "Ignition (Remix)", and 34,435 people lent their good name in support of the construction of a Death Star—a request the White House declined on the grounds that it would add $850 quadrillion dollars to the national debt. (Incidentally, the White House has since raised the signature threshold for petitions to receive a response from 25,000 signatures to 100,000.)

The majority of them, however, are earnest, if sometimes unencumbered by clarity. When you dig into the data a bit, you find something interesting: E.F. is far from an anomaly in his or her double dipping. Of the 6.9 million signatures I downloaded from the site, I was able to identify only 2.2 million unique people. That real number of unique participants is a bit higher, because 18 percent of the signatures did not include either a name or a ZIP code, and because this figure undercounts people with the same initials in the same ZIP code. But the pattern is familiar: A group of "supersigners" making up less than 10 percent of respondents are responsible for 40 percent of the signatures on the site.

There’s valuable information in examining how the more earnest petitions are connected based on which ones the same people like to sign. If you compare any of the dozen petitions calling for stricter gun control measures, you will see a higher percentage of the same people have signed several of them—no surprise there. The same is true of the dozen-some petitions that oppose stricter gun control. Very few people have signed both petitions supporting and opposing gun control, as you might imagine.

But members of both clusters of petitioners have signed proposals for better mental heath facilities and care, on the premise that it might prevent people like Adam Lanza, the shooter in the Newtown, Conn. tragedy, from carrying out future massacres.

When you think about online petitions as a social network, with "friendships" forming between petitions when they share many of the same signatories, you see areas of consensus form around topics that share common ground between issues. In the following interactive, I’ve arranged the petitions as a network diagram in just this manner, connecting any two petitions that share at least 7.5 percent of the same signers. (That’s a high level of commonality in a very large community of people.) I’ve labeled the petitions by hand so that one can visually identify communities. Feel free to take issue with my categories. They are meant only for loose organizational purposes.

As you see, the petitions cluster naturally by subject and by ideology.

Core liberal causes like separation of church and state are deeply entwined with marijuana legalization efforts, as you can see by the dense cluster of blue and green. (Election reform and LGBT rights are in there too.) The animal rights activists, on the other hand—the orange dots—are off in a private constellation. Marijuana rights also crop up near the core conservative causes, like the repeal of Obamacare and even the impeachment of the president.

In other words, the polar ends of the political spectrum are connected by a concern for mental health facilities and a love of cannabis.

You can expect to hear more about these petitions over the next four years, because the White House has big plans for the site. In the old days—last month—if you wanted to analyze data from the site, you had to write your own code, as I did for this column in November. Two weeks ago, the White House Office of Digital Strategy hosted a "hackathon" in which it invited two-dozen programmers to start playing with the raw data that powers the petition site. (You can see my presentation there featured in seconds 52, 53 and 54 of this video.) You still have to write some code to get the data—feel free to use mine, or skip straight to the data for this column—but it just got a lot easier.

I give the White House credit for correctly labeling its event a "hackathon" in spite of the (unfair) connotations hacking has with destructive minds. Questions about the code, or anything else? I'm at