Do 385,000 people really oppose gay marriage?Posted: 4 April 2012
“Poll reveals public unease about plans to redefine marriage”  reads the headline on a Christian online publication. This is certainly the impression the Coalition for Marriage has tried to create with their petition to deny gay couples the right to marry. This petition received a flurry of press attention, but does this translate to a real groundswell of grassroots support?
Ben Goldacre (of Bad Science fame) checked out the petition website and found it odd that there is so little information about who is behind it:
But who are the Coalition For Marriage? They don’t say.
The Coalition for Marriage is an umbrella group of individuals and organisations in the UK that support traditional marriage and oppose any plans to redefine it.
The Coalition is backed by politicians, lawyers, academics and religious leaders. It reaches out to people of all faiths and none, who believe that marriage is the most successful partnership in history and should not be redefined.
But I can’t find a list anywhere, in any of the coverage, press release, anything.
Googling the address: “C4M, 8 Marshalsea Road, London SE1 1HL” it looks like they are in the same building as the Christian Medical Fellowship and the Lawyers Christian Fellowship.
Goldacre also took a moment to make fun of this picture and caption, taken from the Daily Mail, which I’ll include for reasons of general hilariousness:
In reality the “grassroots” Coalition for Marriage was created by a group of far-right evangelical Christian extremists. Its board members have links to CARE (famous for opposing abortion, and for giving incorrect information in their ‘Crisis Pregnancy Centres’) and to the deeply homophobic Christian Institute, famous for having produced plastic cards similar to organ donor cards which read: ‘In the event of my death, I do not want my children to be adopted by homosexuals’. There are also links to the Christian Medical Fellowship and Christian Lawyers’ Fellowship, both closely allied to Nadine Dorries’ anti-abortion crusade, and to the Evangelical Alliance, which opposes both abortion and gay marriage. , 
According to Hope not Hate, a letter was read out in every Catholic church in the UK urging people to sign the petition.  Blogger Blackphi writes about their feelings when someone plugged the petition at the end of Sunday Service at their Baptist church:
It sounds fairly innocuous, except for the context that the government is currently considering whether to legalise ‘gay marriage’. So this looks like a petition aimed at homosexuality; this is confirmed by looking more deeply at C4M. Their website is rather reticent about their background, but a few seconds googling shows that they are controlled by a group calling themselves ‘The Christian Institute’, an anti-gay pressure group.
In the UK (and around the world) homophobic hate crime is on the rise, it seems, whilst suicides as a result of homophobic bullying continue to be reported. Yet some churches still ignore this reality, and continue to condone, even encourage, such behaviour by their continued attacks on homosexuality, on gay people, and on equal rights for all, regardless of sexuality. Too many churches are standing with the bullies; Jesus, as ever, stands with the bullied.
Did people sign the petition out of genuine enthusiasm for banning gay marriage, or because their church leaders told them to? It isn’t really possible to know people’s inner motivations, but I will point out that, in my experience, when a petition that people are passionate about is getting passed around on Facebook and Twitter, there are usually more people sharing it, “liking” it and tweeting it, than actually sign the petition. However for the Coalition for Marriage Petition this is reversed: the petition got 385,000 signatures, but only around 3,000 Facebook “likes”, another 3000 tweets, and 14,000 generic “shares” which could go to a number of social networking sites. That’s around 20,000 shares altogether, compared to 385,000 signatures, which to me suggests that the people who signed the petition weren’t excited enough about it to want to pass it around their social networks. (Another possible explanation is that people knew their homophobia is not socially acceptable.) 
In fact it isn’t necessarily the case that 385,000 individuals really signed the petition as claimed, since, rather than being hosted by an external organisation such as change.org, 38degrees.org.uk, or epetitions.direct.gov.uk, the petition is run by the Coalition for Marriage itself.
In his post Does Winnie the Pooh support Gay Marriage? Matt Wardman writes:
The problem is that [the petition is not] running on a website that allows it to be audited independently by someone we can all trust, or alternatively linked irrefutably to a real identity.
So we have no authoritative idea who has really signed, whether they are real, whether the signatories are actually legitimately able to be part of a UK political process…
…we do not even know whether one person has signed [the] petition 948 times under different identities.
And neither petition appears to do even a reasonable mininum [sic] to ensure even that email addresses are genuine, which means that each email address should be validated and not accepted until a confirming link has been followed, and that signatories should be reviewed.
Wardman signed the C4M petition as “Winnie the Pooh”. The petition sent an email confirming his signature, but he was not required to prove that he had access to the email address he had given, nor did he receive an email complaining that “Winnie the Pooh” was an obviously made-up name.
I had a look today at the C4M petition this morning to see if “Winnie the Pooh” was still included, and I found that the list of signatories is broken, in that no matter how many times you click “Next” you still get sent to the first page, starting with “Lord Carey of Clifton, former Archbishop” and ending with “Alfred Williams”, and it isn’t possible to view the rest of the signatories.
Adrian Tippetts of Pink News points out that the language and messages of the Coalition for Marriage amount to an inversion of reality, where marginalised people are portrayed as the aggressors while those who represent established power are seen to be victimised:
Sympathies are inverted: excluding a whole community becomes ‘defending traditional marriage’; loving couples are reduced to a gay ‘lobby’ or ‘agenda’, ‘redefining marriage for the rest of us’, although just how anyone’s marriage is devalued, let alone redefined, is never coherently explained.
Assertiveness is the new aggression, where campaigning for equal treatment under the law is ‘militant’ and standing for discrimination becomes ‘courageous’. And in this context, the victimhood narrative is being recoded: far from enshrining segregation, Christians like mild-mannered frontman and former Archbishop George Carey are portrayed as villified for standing for their traditional beliefs.
So there we have it: a small but powerful and well-connected group of far-right extremists using their resources to create a false impression that their bigoted ideas are far more popular than they actually are, for the explicit purpose of denying equal rights to gay people. The really scary thing is, they seem to be getting away with it.