Rallying of Campbell Live fans shows web campaign’s power as democratic instrument, writes Marianne Elliott.

Last week MediaWorks announced that current affairs show Campbell Live might be canned, as part of a review of TV3 news programming. Within hours, several #SaveCampbellLive Facebook pages had sprung up, the hashtag was trending on Twitter and at least three different petitions had started. One of those was by ActionStation, a campaigning group I helped found last year. At time of writing, more than 70,000 New Zealanders have signed our petition to save Campbell Live, making it the fastest growing petition on our site since we began in July 2014.

Although we couldn't have predicted the scale of response to this petition, the strength of feeling among our members came as no surprise. Campbell Live, and John Campbell himself, stand for the same values that underpin ActionStation: A commitment to a fairer and more equitable future for all, a belief in the goodness and power of ordinary people working together, and an insistence that people who make decisions affecting the lives of ordinary Kiwis be held accountable for those decisions.

John Campbell has thanked signers of our petition for their support, but some media commentators have criticised our efforts, arguing that petitions won't help, only ratings will. As someone who dedicated the past year to launching an online campaigning movement, and one of the organisers of this petition, I might be expected to come to the defence of the petition. But I think the critics have a point.

Five years ago, Malcolm Gladwell warned that internet-enabled activism would make it "easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact". As ActionStation adviser and former new media director for President Obama's Organising for America, Ben Brandzel noted in response at the time, this warning is wrong only in its absolutism - the phenomenon he's describing is a real, growing and serious problem.

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Online technology and social media platforms have made it easier to create and begin petitions, leading to a proliferation of sites where people can start their own. Not all these petitions have a clear theory of change, many lack any broader strategy to support that change, and - at their worst - some sites seem more focused on acquiring email addresses than affecting real change.

The problem though, is that critics of the petitions are mistaking a tool for the strategy - and in doing so they are, as Brandzel has said, "encouraging people to abandon a vital force to defend democracy just when we need it most".

Brandzel was a co-founder of Avaaz, and now runs an international network of online, progressive, campaigning organisations, of which ActionStation is a member. His passion for what he calls "digitally-facilitated member-led campaigning" is grounded in the increasing dominance of politics by big money, in the United States and around the world. "Tools that enable ordinary citizens to catalyse collective action have never been more urgently needed for the survival of our democracy," he says.

In this case in particular, critics of petitions to save Campbell Live may have underestimated their power to rally Campbell's fans into action. On Friday, ActionStation asked everyone who had signed our petition to tune in to watch the show. And they did, in great enough numbers to give Campbell Live its highest average audience for 2015, making it the third-highest-rated TV3 show on Friday. On Monday night viewers returned in even greater numbers: 358,100 people tuned in to watch John Campbell, beating Friday's numbers.

Since the birth of democracy, citizens have acted collectively to hold powerful political and corporate decision-makers to account. The world is changing, the way citizens engage with politics is changing and democracy needs to change with it. There is a growing appetite for mechanisms that enable citizens' voices to be heard between elections in a range of ways. ActionStation was started to help provide those mechanisms.

Marianne Elliott is national director of ActionStation, an independent and member-led campaigning group of more than 70,000 people built by, and for, New Zealanders, which started in July 2014.