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 e-petition.
It offers instant comfort to those outraged by the latest ills of the world through its implicit assurance that affixing their names to a statement decrying a situation and demanding change will make a difference. That assurance is a severely flawed one for a multitude of reasons.
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 miserably.
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 =97 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. E-petitions, however, have one further shortcoming inherent to them that entirely undercut any value the same documents might have had in paper-and-ink form.
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 =97 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, e-mail addresses, and cities (or whatever combination of same the e-petition calls for). Once written, such a program can be executed with a keystroke, resulting in the effortless generation of thousands upon thousands of "signatures."
Those in a position to influence anything know this and thus accord e-petitions only slightly more respect than they would a blank sheet of paper.
Thus, even the best written, properly addressed, and lovingly delivered e-petitions whose every signature was scrupulously vetted by the petition's creator fall into the same vortex of disbelief at the receiving end that less carefully shepherded missives find themselves relegated to.
Okay, so the average e-petition isn't ultimately worth the pixels it took to create it =97 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 e-petition provides a welcome relief. Imagine having the power to solve those problems! Moreover, imagine having it merely at the click of a mouse!
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 e-petition, those left feeling like bystanders to important events are transformed into powerful agents for social change. It's heady stuff.
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 e-mail because some big company has supposedly promised that every forward will generate monies for the care of a particular dying child.
Likewise, it's slacktivism that prompts us to want to join a boycott of designated gas companies or eschew buying gasoline on a particular day rather than reduce our personal consumption of fossil fuels by driving less and taking the bus more often. Slacktivism comes in many forms (and there are many other illustrations of it on this web site; our goal was merely to offer a few examples rather than provide a definitive list), but its key defining characteristic is its central theme of doing good with little or no effort on the part of person inspired to participate in the forwarding, exhorting, collecting, or e-signing.
For many, e-petitions satisfy the need to feel they are doing good and thus somewhat quell that nagging feeling they should be doing more to make the world a better place. As such, they serve a purpose as an outlet
for those who "sign" such missives experience a personal sense of accomplishment in tandem with the warming sensation of having come to society's aid. Good feels like it has been done in two directions
for the signature helping a worthy cause, and the act of signing helping the person who was moved to add his name to the petition. E-petitions are sexy even when they don't have a hope in hell of helping to accomplish their stated goals because they afford us an opportunity to bestow upon ourselves a pat on the back rather than
continue to feel guilty about not doing our part. That nothing is really getting accomplished is almost beside the point; we believe we've been part of something worthwhile and so feel better about ourselves.
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
e-petitions' inherent shortcomings. Those tempted to confuse the appearance of legitimacy with legitimacy itself should keep in mind that many a mark has been conned out of his life's savings by a smooth talker who had a fancy, seemingly well-staffed office and impressive letterhead. Looks ain't everything.
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 (e-petition and otherwise, such as this one) carry advertising banners, and granted, the revenues gained through that are often the only thing that keeps those sites operating. The presence of ads doesn't indicate anything about the quality or integrity of a site that bears them, but that those ads are there should be taken into consideration when musing "Does this site exist for the purpose I would otherwise think it does?"
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 September 11 attacks and the subsequent war on the Taliban, a cyber petition decrying the condition of women in Afghanistan worked to enlighten many as to what was going on half a world away. That the premise of the petition was horribly flawed ("If only the Taliban knew they were doing a bad thing, they'd stop") doesn't change that it worked to bring information to people.
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.