Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: Signing and circulating online petitions is an effective way of remedying important issues.
Origins: The 2000s have seen the birth of an Internet phenomenon: the
Often petitions contain no information about whom they are ultimately intended for and instead are no more than outpourings of outrage. Expressions of outrage are fine and good, but if they don't reach someone who can have impact on the core problem, they're wasted. Thus, a petition that doesn't clearly identify the intended recipient may have some small value as a way for its signers to work off angst, but as an instrument of social change it fails
Even those that clearly identify the intended recipient don't come with a guarantee that the person slated to receive the document is in any position to influence matters. A misdirected petition is of no more use than an undirected one — though the voices it contains may be shouting, they won't be heard.
Even well-addressed, well-thought-out petitions have their problems, chief among them the lack of a guarantee that anyone is collecting and collating the signatures or will deliver the completed documents to the right parties. The mere existence of a petition doesn't warrant that anyone will do anything with it once it is completed.
Moreover, petitions aren't the instruments of social change we'd so dearly love to believe they are. Yes, a petition festooned with a zillion signatures can have some influence, but only as a tangible proof of a subset of public opinion, and only upon those whose welfare is dependent upon public opinion (eg. politicians). Those signatures aren't votes, and they aren't treated as such by the governing bodies that have to decide on the tough questions of our times. At best, they're seen as an indication of the public's will, no more.
Petitions calling for the erection of a firefighters memorial or to have next Thursday designated national performing arts day have some small hope of success, but all bets are off when the question becomes more complex ("Let's solve the problem of poverty in the USA") or when acts taking place on foreign soil are the subject of the angst ("Let's end child rape in South Africa"). Difficult problems don't suddenly yield up simple solutions just because a great many fervently hope they would, nor do foreign governments feel impelled to change conditions in their countries just because folks in other lands are upset by them.
All of the above applies to hand-signed and cyber petitions alike.
Paper-and-ink petitions are signed in a variety of handwriting styles, each unique to its signer. Consequently, signatures on a paper-and-ink petition cannot easily be faked else certain glaring similarities would show up in one entry after another.
E-petitions, however, come with no such assurance — the same person could have generated all of the signatures. Moreover, it takes little by way of programming skills to create a sequence of code that will randomly generate fake names,
Those in a position to influence anything know this and thus accord
Okay, so the average e-petition isn't ultimately worth the pixels it took to create it — why are they so popular?
In a world beset by complex problems, the solutions of which will take enormous amounts of time, money, and commitment, such simplification as the
Such is the appeal. A sense of powerlessness and lack of control over events played out on the grand scale becomes replaced by the certainty that real change can be brought about at the cost of no more effort than it takes to type a few characters on a keyboard, just enough to display one's name on a growing list of equally committed cyber activists. Through the magic of the
It's also illusion.
E-petitions are the latest manifestation of slacktivism, the search for the ultimate feel-good that derives from having come to society's rescue without having had to actually get one's hands dirty or open one's wallet. It's slacktivism that prompts us to forward appeals for business cards on behalf of a dying child intent upon having his name recorded in the Guinness World Book of Records or exhortations to others to continue circulating a particular
Because e-petitions are as popular as they are, a number of web sites have sprung up to service the interest in them. That these web sites exist doesn't impart to the lowly cyber petition any more credibility than it previously had, nor does it imbue it with any more power to effect change. The presence of web sites devoted to them (even well-constructed authoritative-looking ones) changes nothing about
We're not going to offer an opinion on whether one site or another is legitimate (i.e. the petitions it houses are actually delivered to those they were intended for and all the "signatures" visitors provide are actually appended to them). Those questions are far better directed by interested readers to the sites themselves. Rather, we're going to acquaint our readers with one further point they might not otherwise be taking into consideration.
Many of these sites display banner ads that generate revenues for the sites' operators. That means every time someone visits to view or sign a petition, the site's owners earn revenue. This happens whether or not there are any real petitions, whether or not any petitions are delivered to their stated recipients, whether or not the "signatures" collected are appended to them, whether or not only the "signatures" collected are appended (versus the site's owners adding to the list names they have generated). An entirely bogus petition site will make money for its owners just as well as a real one would because revenue is dependent on how many visit the site, not upon how many petitions are completed and delivered to the named recipients, nor upon how useful cyber petitions are.
Granted, a great many sites
No matter what else can be said against cyber petitions (and so far we've said a great deal), they do serve one actual valuable purpose: They can sometimes be useful tools with which to acquaint folks with situations they might otherwise have little, if any, knowledge of. For instance, in those days prior to the
Of course, that same valid purpose could be better served by essays circulated on the Internet. Essays, at least, don't foster this growing climate of slacktivism, of participation at no cost, of lasting social change achieved through no effort.
Those truly committed to righting the wrongs of the world are encouraged to take pen in hand and craft actual letters to their congressmen or to whomever they deem are the appropriate people to contact about particular issues. Real letters (the kind that are written in a person's own words and sent through the regular mail) are accorded far more respect than form letters (let alone petitions), and that should be kept in mind by those intent upon being heard. Yes, the effort it takes is far larger. But so is the potential for making an actual difference.
Barbara "differences of opinion" Mikkelson
Info About an Internet Petition E-mail Attributed to Snopes.com:
This material may not be reproduced without permission.
snopes and the snopes.com logo are registered service marks of snopes.com.