Canadian Social Research Links


October 3, 2011

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Internet Petitions, Shminternet Petitions.

Please stop now.
Here's why.

I've had problems with the concept of online petitions from the very first one that I was asked to sign back in the late 1990s, because they offer a simplistic feel-good solution (for the signatories) that's easy to do. It's sometimes called "Slacktivism", and it's so easy that there's software out there now that can create the most authentic-looking collection of fake signatures and e-mail addresses for *any* petition. Lawmakers and judges know this, and they don't give much weight to such petitions...

In 2002-2003, the Internet conferred celebrity status upon Amina Lawal, a Nigerian woman sentenced to death under Sharia law for adultery. Like most people who are connected to the social justice movement in Canada, I received invitations to sign an online petition advocating for fairer treatment of Amina Lawal; I also received a number of requests to post the link to the Internet petition on my website and in my newsletter.

I decided to inform myself to help me make a more enlightened decision whether or not to post the Amina Lawal petition on my website. I exchanged e-mails with both Amnesty International Australia (the NGO that was spearheading the petition effort) and with BAOBAB, the Nigerian women's rights group that was defending Ms. Lawal. BAOBAB felt not only that the Internet petition would be ineffective, but that it could well inflame anti-Western sentiment among the Sharia judges and result in a worse outcome for the defendant than if there had been no intervention at all.

Needless to say, I didn't post a link to the petition. I also felt that it was worth documenting the whole course of events, and it was also worth including an article by Michele Landsberg of The Toronto Star stating flatly that Internet petitions are "a complete waste of time and cyberspace". I agree.

Internet Petitions and Letter-Writing Campaigns - Yes or No?
The story of Amina Lawal
- includes links to the e-mail exchanges and related web content - read all about Amina Lawal here.


On a more general level, there are many problems with the whole notion of Internet petitions in addition to fake lists of signatories.
Here's one of the better overviews of the dangers of Internet petitions that I've seen recently:

Internet Petitions
Signing and circulating online petitions is an effective way of helping to remedy important issues.
Or is it?
"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..."


The text below is part of a message from "A contact in the RCMP" forwarded to me by a visitor to my site.
The "alleged" source (RCMP) is questionable, of course, but the techniques are very plausible...

"Any time you see an e-mail that says, "Sign this petition and forward this on to 10 (or 25, or all) of your friends, and you'll get good luck" or whatever, it has either an e-mail tracker program attached that tracks the cookies and e-mails of those folks you forward to, or the host sender is getting a copy each time it gets forwarded and then is able to get lists of "active" e-mails to use in spam e-mails, or sell to others that do."

Post Scriptum:

Oh, yeah - and the same goes for those straight-from-the-heart expressions of True Friendship or religious fervour, or awe and wonderment with respect to one of the Wonders of Nature...

No, I won't send these to everyone in my Address Book within the next 24 hours, for the reasons above AND because we all have different a different set of values and a different sense of humour.

The only time I reply to ANY email (joke, petition, expression of undying friendship, etc.) that's forwarded to me as part of a mailing list by a friend or relative is when there's an actual message to little old *me* somewhere in there. If you *must* send jokes and what-not, at least have the decency to put people's names in a BCC list so they're not exposed for all the world to see...

[By Gilles]


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