Are Email Petitions Useful?

by techtiptom

Originally posted on wibc.com on 08/27/2012

If you have been using email for any length of time, at some point you have probably received an email in the form of a petition. The message requests you to “sign” the petition by adding your name before sending it on to others in your address book. Emails of this nature generally contain a few paragraphs of text explaining the purpose and intended goals of the petition as well as instructions about how to sign and forward the message. Such email-based petitions have focused on a large variety of causes.

I am often asked if such petitions have any value. Well, in my opinion, they are completely worthless. Here’s why:
• Name lists on email petitions are very easy to forge:
Very often, to “sign” an email petition you simply add your name and perhaps some geographic information such as the name of the city you live in. However, the person targeted by the petition has no way of knowing if the names are genuine. It would be exceptionally easy for a person to make up lists of bogus names or even copy and paste names from other sources. For example, an enterprising armchair activist could copy whole lists of names from unrelated email petitions and add them to his or her petition before forwarding it. In fact, a person who cared strongly about a particular issue could add hundreds of names to an email petition with very little work.

This forgery factor is a major reason why people such as government officials who are the intended target of email petitions are quite unlikely to give them much credence. Normally, there is no viable way for the recipient of the petition to verify names on the list. Nor can it be determined whether a list was signed by the person named or added without his or her consent. Regardless of the medium used, a credible petition must contain verifiable information about those who sign it.
• Privacy and security issues:
Occasionally email petitions do ask recipients for more details such as an email address or even a street address. While this might give more credence to the petition, it is also a quite unacceptable security risk. An email petition could end up anywhere, including the inboxes of spammers or fraudsters. Adding personal information such as a full name and street address to any email that is likely to be forwarded is an unsafe practice.
• Email petitions often contain false or outdated information:
Another serious problem with email petitions is that the cause they are protesting against may not even be valid. Email petitions are often based on misinformation. A classic example is the long running bonsai kittens petition. This email calls for the authorities to stop the practice of creating “bonsai kittens”. Supposedly, creating a bonsai kitten involves thrusting a living cat into a glass jar to restrict its growth. While such a horrible practice would certainly be worthy of protest, bonsai kittens are nothing more than an urban myth. No one is making bonsai kittens. The story derives from a satirical website that has bonsai kittens as its subject.
• Email petitions may never reach their target:
A lot of email petitions instruct you to forward the petition to a specific email address once the list reaches a given number of names. This might be the email address of a politician or an organization related to the cause in question. However, there is no guarantee that anybody in authority will actually get to view the petition. If the same petition emails, albeit with different names included, are being repeatedly sent to a government department or other large organization I think there is a good chance that they will be simply deleted before they are read.

Also, the email address provided in the petition may not be valid because it was incorrectly transcribed, it has been changed during subsequent forwarding, or it has been disabled. This means that the compiled list of names will bounce and never reach its target.

Amazingly, some email petitions have no specific target at all. In 2002, a vague email protesting racism was signed and forward by many people around the world even though it did not specify any particular person or organization as the target of the petition. The petition simply circulated aimlessly around cyberspace collecting names for no good reason.
• Email petitions can be counter productive:
A more subtle danger of email petitions is that they can effectively defang a person’s desire to take constructive action concerning a cause they believe in. The almost too simple act of “signing” and forwarding an email petition can give the sender a false sense of having “done” something to help “the cause” and they may be less likely to become involved in more worthwhile approaches to the problem at hand.
In summary, think twice about “signing” and forwarding email petitions. There are much more effective ways of bringing attention to a problem and registering your protest. You could contact a relevant person directly and outline your grievances. You could also write Letters to the Editor, start a legitimate petition or even organize a demonstration, to name just a few options.

If you still feel that signing and sending an email petition is worth the effort, then at least take the time to check if the information in the email is actually factual and current before proceeding.

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