Bogus Activism Online
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Bogus activism online
Peace petition goes nowhere
By Wendy Navratil
[Chicago] Tribune staff reporter
February 2, 2003
During the on-again/off-again march to war in Iraq, perhaps
you and 10,000 of your closest friends have received a
petition that goes something like this:
"Today I understand that 25 Congresswomen in the U.S. House
of Representatives walked out--and refused to participate in
the vote to give Bush war powers--they were led by Barbara
Bell of California and they took up residence on the White
House lawn. . . . They say women can change the world. Here
is a chance!"
That preamble is followed by a petition to sign and forward
for "Women United Against War."
There's just one problem with that campaign. Or three (not
counting the misplaced dashes and spam aftertaste):
No such congresswoman exists, no such walkout happened and
the e-mail address to which respondents are asked to forward
every 50 signatures is invalid.
"Don't waste your time signing or forwarding this pointless
petition," says urbanlegends.about.com. "The long,
repetitive lists of names attached to these messages simply
circulate without end, never arriving at a final destination
nor being seen by anyone of consequence."
Even if they are legitimate efforts, do these sorts of
electronic petitions--which multiplied leading up to
President Bush's State of the Union address Tuesday--ever
enter the capital consciousness at all? Or are they simply
feel-good exercises in futility?
More often than not, the latter, experts say.
"The problem with e-mail petitions is that they're
essentially chain letters," said David Emery, editor of the
urban-legends section of About.com.
A tidal wave
Quantity, when it comes to legislative causes, is not
necessarily quality. Any high-volume business demands a
level of management that most grass-roots activists did not
know they were signing up for. Names are repeated several
times on various incarnations of the petition. Collection
points get overwhelmed with responses and shut down.
One of the most infamous examples of good intentions gone
bad dates to November 1995, when two University of Northern
Colorado students started an e-mail petition to "save NPR
and PBS," citing congressional threats to cut funding for
public broadcasting. They, too, asked every 50th respondent
to return it to either of them.
They lived to regret it. Response overwhelmed them and the
college's computer system. It was never sent to members of
Congress. One student dropped out of school (for unrelated
reasons). The other spent two years doggedly responding to
senders with a plea to stop forwarding it.
To this day, the obsolete petition haunts e-mail-boxes
across the country.
Not much better
Web-site petitions are a step up from e-mail petitions,
Emery said. But they're not without pitfalls, because anyone
can start them, it's hard to gauge their seriousness and
most initiators lose interest.
"A few years ago, I would have told you that all Internet
petitions are lost causes," Emery said, "but that's actually
changing because a few organizations are figuring out how to
do it effectively."
MoveOn.org is a shining example among them. Yes, this is the
activist group that remade the controversial "Daisy" Cold
War-era TV ad, with the warning that an Iraq invasion could
spark nuclear catastrophe.
But beyond that, on Jan. 21 volunteers for the group
hand-delivered hard copies of "Let the Inspections Work"
petitions bearing about 320,000 names, sorted by legislative
district, to members of Congress, including Sens. Dick
Durbin and Peter Fitzgerald as well as representatives.
Those face-to-face follow-up meetings between constituents
and leaders are a crucial improvement over virtual-reality
efforts of the past.
A mass of signatures forwarded indiscriminately, from people
outside a legislator's district, is likely to be
fast-tracked to the trash, said Chris Casey, president of an
Internet strategy and consulting firm for Democrats.
"E-mailers who send their message to every member of
Congress think their voice is amplified," Casey said.
"The truth is more likely the opposite. An e-mail sent to
everybody is less likely to be read by anybody."
MoveOn.org invests in further insurance to get its voice
heard. A separate arm of the group--MoveOn PAC--raises funds
"In terms of the whole picture, for many politicians, money
is where the rubber hits the road," said Wes Boyd, president
of MoveOn.org, which reports 700,000 online activists. "We
have the carrot of advocacy and the stick of electoral
Back to that bogus petition
By way of contrast, what do we make of that e-mailed "Women
United Against War" petition?
Emery initially thought the e-mail petition was unqualified
junk, based largely on the bogus introduction (see italics
passage above). It contains details that seem too close to
reality to be an innocent mistake.
Namely, there is a Rep. Barbara Lee, not Bell, of
California, and she has opposed war in Iraq. She also caused
a ruckus back in September 2001 when she opposed a
resolution giving Bush broad war powers following the World
Trade Center attacks.
Enough people were duped by that preamble that Lee herself
addressed it on her Web site, saying, "I want to make it
clear that 'Barbara Bell' is a fictional member of Congress.
... I, Barbara Lee, did offer an amendment in opposition to
the Bush resolution authorizing force against Iraq. ... I
did not, however, lead or participate in any supposed
walkout by women members."
There were signs, however, that maybe this e-mail petition
wasn't just mischief. Like a game of "Gossip," perhaps some
noble but naive effort had gone awry.
Some of the language in the e-mail petition was identical to
a Web-based "Women United for Peace" petition that was
attributed to a real group known as UnReasonable Women for
Even so, at the bottom of it was that same invalid e-mail
So, the diagnosis from Emery? Still junk.
But then, last Sunday a woman who said she represented
UnReasonable Women for the Earth and CodePink, Women's
Pre-Emptive Strike for Peace, wrote to Emery, saying she
wished he would change his diagnosis on the urban legends
She said the petition was real and was now linked to the
www.codepink4peace.org Web site because it was too much to
handle through the e-mail address. She said it had more than
22,000 names and that it would be presented to the White
House the weekend of March 8, International Women's Day.
Moral of the story, for the moment: If you're feeling
dove-ish about Iraq disarmament and can live with a little
uncertainty about the petition's ultimate fate, go to the
Web site and sign on.
Or, consider a tip from Emery: "My best advice to people who
really care about issues of the day is to sit down with a
pencil and paper and write a good, old-fashioned letter to
your elected representatives. It's the one way you can be
sure your voice will be heard."
Now available: _The Unspeakable and Others_
All my fiction through 2001 and more. Intro by S.T. Joshi.
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News for Anarchists & Activists:
Said Smygo, the iconoclast of Zothique: "Bear a hammer with
thee always, and break down any terminus on which is
written: 'So far shalt thou pass, but no further go.'"
--Clark Ashton Smith