Why are internet petitions a bad idea?

Internet and on-line petitions seem like a quick and easy way to make a statement. Unfortunately at best they're ineffectual, and at worst they do real harm.

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A mailing list I’m on encouraged all its readers to go to a web site and sign an internet petition supporting some legislation we care about. I mentioned that to a friend of mine, and his opinion was that I’d been duped, and that it was a scam. Is he right? Are internet petitions a
scam?

Some are. Some aren’t. But they do, in my opinion, share a common characteristic:

Most are ineffectual.

And that can actually cause more harm that good.

Let me explain why that is…

There are several reasons you need to be extra careful, and fully aware, before you choose to use an internet petition to make your opinion heard. These are just a few.

  • Spam – Many internet petition sites will ask for your email address. It can be a reasonable security measure to ensure that you are a real person, and to avoid “stuffing” the petition with multiple fraudulent “signatures”. Unfortunately it can also be an easy way for a nefarious spammer to collect your email address, and begin sending you lots of spam. Think about it – not only do they know your email address, but they also now know at least one issue you feel strongly about.
  • Please sign my online petition!Trickery – Along the same lines as spam, I’ve seen several ads, polls and petitions that, once you’ve signed or voted, are nothing more than a way to take you to some kind of sales pitch that may, or may not, be related to the issue at hand.
  • Ineffectiveness (#1) – When you sign an internet petition, you’re relying on the provider of that petition to actually do something with the results. They may. Or they may not. In my opinion, if the petition site is plastered with ads, then I’d start getting suspicious that they were more interested in you perhaps clicking on an ad, than actually doing anything with the petition information.
  • Ineffectiveness (#2) – Any legitimate organization that receives the result of an internet petition will, in all likelihood, ignore it. As they should. It’s much too easy to fabricate, miscollect or misrepresent data collected this way. Even for legitimate internet petitions, “voter fraud” is both rampant, and difficult to control. Any recipient of an internet petitions that “gets” this will, most likely, thank the providers of the information, and then throw the results away.
  • Misguidance – Internet petitions make you feel good. It feels like you’ve done something. But, as the previous points all lead up to, you’ve likely not accomplished anything at all. But, feeling like you have, you may elect not to do something else – like write a real letter, or make a phone call, or make a donation. The fact that the internet petition might distract you from doing something that actually could be effective is, in my opinion, it’s real danger.

If you feel strongly enough about an issue, use more traditional means …

So what should you do? If you feel strongly enough about an issue, use more traditional means – write a letter, a real one on paper, and mail it – make a phone call – make a donation, if that’s your desire. The fact that each one of these isn’t as easy as an internet petition is exactly why they’re more effective. If you actually take the time to do these things, it’s clearly an important issue to you, and you’re more likely to be heard.

Heck – anyone can click on a link.

Comments

  1. Greg Bulmash

    THANK YOU LEO!!!!

    Thank you for posting this. I try and try to explain to people why these petitions are stupid (especially the e-mail ones that say “add your name and forward this”). Now I’ll just send them this link.

    You are truly a wonderful person and a savior to all mankind.

  2. John Fischer

    In all the writeups on internet petitions, no one mentions what I call the “geometric duplication of signatures”. If Joe Smith starts a petition and sends it out to 100 people, his name will appear on all 100 petitions. If those 100 people send the petition out to 100 people each, Joe Smith’s name will appear on 10,000 petitions and so on. And, a similar multiplier effect will occur for everyone who signs, albeit to lesser degrees depending on where their names appear in the list.

    To me, this is the biggest reason for NOT participating in internet petitions.

    Comments?

  3. Cathal

    There is another factor in signing internet petitions if you are from outside the US. If you sign an internet or email petition that makes a criticism of the US in any way, it can come up if you have to apply for a working visa. This actually happened a friend of mine.

  4. Lilian

    Leo, I always reply to my Dying with Dignity petitions & was really amused when they told us how to do multiple entries to a news paper petition ! [there is life in us old dogs yet ]
    Don’t YOU dare retire, or we will have to follow you to US, & I havn’t won the lottery yet.
    Lilian. O

  5. Noel

    Leo,
    Do you think Facebook petitions and Care2 petitions are any better? I would be interested in your comments on how they solve or do not solve the problems you mentioned.
    Thank,
    ND

    Nope. They might make you feel better, but in general the people you’re trying to reach either never see them, or don’t pay attention to the results.

    – Leo
    08-Feb-2009
    • Jessicah

      Can you please give me some credible links that will take me to any of this information? I work with several animal rescues and transports, and therefore see so many yousign, youcare, care, etc. petitions – and I’ll admit having added my name to many – that I’m really trying to get to the bottom of this. You make a good point about subsequent apathy after signing a petition, and I can get behind that, but I’m wondering if the petitions creators are frauds from the beginning; pulling on heartstrings when all they really want is for people to click on their page to line their greedy pockets. Thanks in advance for any help.

  6. Mike Mackintosh

    If mine is the first name on the list, on how many lists will my name have appeared if they all get 100 entries? Some mathematical genius might care to work it out. But I can only legitimately sign a petition once, so the lists are invalid anyway.
    My wife is a British citizen and she was asked to sign a perition. You were sent a specific form on which to record your vote and given the e-mail address of the government department that was being petitioned. That makes sense.

  7. Timothy

    Maybe those Internet petitions won’t get enough signatures. We want the gas prices lowered and there were petitions for that. Also I want to make my public transportation better and also have unfair rules repealed like portable DVD players allowed on the buses as long as those people with them use headphones and don’t distract others with it. I also think that high gas prices cost me driving lessons.

    Even if they do get “enough” signatures, internet petitions are ineffective and a waste of time.

    Leo
    05-Jun-2010

  8. Fred Nerd

    There are SOME good uses. Mainly as feedback. For instance: if a facebook petition to save whales has 1 millon signatures, you can tell that the issue has public opinion. Now, the petition might do nothing, BUT some politician might be able to leverage this and will do something to get votes.

    (Just like I KNOW that not many people care to Save the Woolly Mammoth)

    In Australia we have the ‘Get Up’ organisation which often does online petitions. They can take it to whatever level of government and say ‘there are a lot of VOTING people who want logging stopped, is this a good hint?’

    But they’re the exceptions to the rule.

    Anyone with even a hint of internet familiarity should never pay attention to internet petitions because they are trivial to manipulate and falsify. So, no, you cannot and should not assume that any internet petition with 1,000,000 “signatures” means that 1,000,000 people care. Get 1,000,000 people to write a letter instead and you’ll get someone’s attention.

    Leo
    14-Oct-2011
  9. T

    Don’t paint petition sites with the same brush until you do some research. It depends on which petition site you use. There ARE effective sites, CARES2 is one, several political sites sponsor petitions. You have to sign up and have your personal information on file to sign. It DOES work. Sites like http://org2.democracyinaction.org/o/6931/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=13214 are legitimate.
    I never sign the email petitions that ask you to forward to some particular address when the number of signers reaches 100. There is nothing to stop me from copying the phone book to it and the recipient knows that. Those get hit with the delete button or go into the Spam folder.
    Petitions work.

    • t thomas

      I am a avid ANIMAL ADVOCATE, and sign petitions constantly for the betterment of their lives and the abuse to stop. I DO BELIEVE that petitions make a difference and that REAL PEOPLE care. I rarely receive ‘junk mail’ and have NEVER had any problems due to the petitions I have signed OR shared. Please take Leos’ advice with a ‘grain of salt’, he doesn’t know EVERYTHING ABOUT EVERYTHING.

  10. A.Hardie

    I’m afraid in this rare instance you are off beam.
    In the UK we have a high profile organisation called 38 Degrees which has proven to be very effective and have certainly influenced the UK Government on several issues. You fill out a form which they prefill with your Member of Parliament. I have proof of the effectiveness as several times I have letters from my MP responding to the questions raised in the petition. He happens to be the Minister for Foreign Affairs, former leader of the Conservative Party, so no doubt his office prepares the letters but it does show that the petitions are taken seriously.
    There is also another, Government organisation, that encourages individuals to raise petitions.

  11. Jeff Burns

    Leo,
    I might have agreed with you back when you first posted this comment, but I definitely don’t agree now. In fact, this is dated enough that I would suggest that you take it down.

    Legitimate petition sites communicate with us regularly, reporting the victories and losses. The numbers of victories have increased noticeably these days. Care2, Credo, Avast, NRDC, Union of Concerned Scientists, Daily KOS, Change.org, Naral, Move On, SumOfUs, Ultraviolet Action, Change.org, MomsRising.org are all legitimate, active and worthy of support. Please don’t discourage people from participation in our democracy. They have enough reasons to zone out as it is.

  12. Steve

    We all agree that email petitions are a joke.

    However, valid online (web site) petitions do serve a purpose. Even the U.S. government has gotten in on the idea. The White House has an online pettion portal. Of course, one has to wonder if anything is really accomplished by such things.

    Leo’s comment about getting people to write a letter instead is spot on.

  13. Robert

    I disagree with you with regards to online petitions.

    Here in the UK we have 2 – 3 web sites that handle online petitions, and we know they work as they are often quoted both in the press and in our parliament. These agencies do a great job and they are purely non-profit.

    Secondly again here in the UK we also have an online petition site run by the UK government which enables any citizen to open a petition and if they gain over 100,000 votes then the matter is taken up in parliament.

    So before putting everything in 1 basket please do a bit more investigation. This is important because you have a large user base who look to you for advice

  14. Ortwin

    This comment of Leo is 9 years old! Things changed since 2005 – in digital standard about 100 years? – and petitions are approved on other media by now.
    Thank God that Leo has retired! I don’t like people who search for reason to do nothing and that are old in their behaviour, not of age! That are the first who would search for reasons to do nothing against climate change, etc., but want to calm down their bad conscience!
    Every online petition is a chance for the live of a pet, a wild-life or even human being or the existence of a nationalpark or forrest!
    And there are 1000 voices better than 1 letter of an retired MS programmer, which says it all, btw ;)))))))) (I’d like to say the recepient of the letter, looooool, “but it’s from me, Leo”)

  15. Nick

    Leo, I do think your blanket condemnation of e-petitions is somewhat outdated. A lot depends on how well the petition is organised. Of course, if there is no protection against duplication or fraudulent entries, then an e-petition’s credibility is reduced, however that applies no less to and old-fashioned paper petition, in which such protections and checking are possibly even less easy to carry out.

    In Britain, both the UK and Scottish Parliaments conduct e-petition systems in which the veracity of every signature is carefully checked and thus they are able to carry some real force, requiring action to be taken in response when a certain threshhold is reached (I think it’s 100,000 in the case of UK Gov). And less official organisations such as the previously mentioned 38-Degrees and World Development Movement (soon to become “Global Justice Now”) also have well organised and well conducted e-petitions which genuinely do carry weight and are therefore respected by politicians and others at whom they are aimed.

    So I think you should reconsider your position on this, and consider modifying your opinion to suit the changing times in which we live, and possibly work toward giving some positive guidance as to how to ensure the veracity, and therefor the credibility and effectiveness, of an e-petition system, rather than simply condemning out of hand the whole process.

  16. Sichuan

    With all due respect, Leo, I disagree with you and the majority of people commenting on this subject. Petitions involving political, animal welfare and other issues can be very important and very effective. Corporations care deeply about their reputations, if only because a bad reputation can cause a loss of profits and politicians care deeply about their reputation if only because it can affect their chances of reelection. Petitions involving animal welfare and our environment can also be very, very effective. I see it every day and I am actively engaged in the signing of such petitions. I don’t do Facebook, Twitter or any other social websites because I value my privacy and I will not allow myself to be exploited for corporate profits or market share like some kind of commodity. If signing a petition is ineffective I suggest that one should either choose their petitions carefully or develop the common sense and intelligence necessary to realize just exactly what it is that he or she is signing. I honestly believe that you are doing your readers a disservice by suggesting that signing petitions is a waste of time. I also suggest that to be apathetic to such causes that create petitions is to make matters worse by doing absolutely nothing about the things that matter to us on a personal basis and as citizens of our nation. Apathy is the destroyer of all nations.

    • I certainly don’t advocate apathy! :-)

      1) Please distinguish between petitions (in person, on paper) and online petitions. My opinion stands regarding online petitions. While there are some that may be valuable, by far the majority are a waste of everyone’s time.

      2) The real issue is that you think you’ve done something when you haven’t. My position: instead of signing some petition of unknown efficacy, do something you know will make a difference: write a letter (on paper), pick up the phone, even sending an email to a government official is likely to have incrementally more impact than signing an online petition.

      So, absolutely do something – I just don’t believe that something should be an online petition.

      • Connie

        Things like crowd source funding are a way better way to go. It’s really meaningless to forward email petitions, or click something on a webpage. Crowdsource funding requires people to put down a little cash and it’s a more effective way to support important causes.

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