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Bogus Activism Online

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  • Dan Clore
    News for Anarchists & Activists: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 2, 2003
      News for Anarchists & Activists:


      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
      for candidates.

      "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
      the Earth.

      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
      Web site.

      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."

      Dan Clore

      Now available: _The Unspeakable and Others_
      All my fiction through 2001 and more. Intro by S.T. Joshi.

      Lord We├┐rdgliffe and Necronomicon Page:
      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
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