The Online Petition That Wouldn't Die

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"The government of Afghanistan is waging a war upon women," begins one ofthe better known, but virtually useless e-mail petitions circulating on theInternet. In the last few years, an increasing number of petitions like thisone have found their way into e-mail boxes around the world, many of themhoaxes and junk mail luring well-intentioned readers to respond in hopes ofmaking a difference.

The now infamous Women of Afghanistan petition is still making therounds, sometimes revisiting the same people five, six, seven and moretimes. The irksome e-mail may have alerted millions to the status of womenin that war-torn region, but in the process has wasted the time of millionsof sympathetic computer users.

"I am totally confused. This is at least the tenth time I have been sentthis same petition," Nora Gold wrote to members of her feminist forum inIsrael. "The situation of women in Afghanistan is obviously a terribleproblem and we all need to be doing whatever we can, in ways that areeffective. What's the real story with this petition?"

This petition, detailing atrocities being committed against the women inAfghanistan by the ruling fundamentalist Taliban, encourages readers to signtheir names and pass it on to all members of their address books. Everyfiftieth signer is requested to send it back to the address "sarabande" atBrandeis University. No one knows for sure who sarabande is, or if sarabandeeven exists.

In fact, this e-mail address has been permanently closed for over twoyears. Less than two weeks after the petition was started by BrandeisUniversity student Melissa Buckheit, the hundreds of thousands of e-mailsreceived caused the entire Brandeis computer system to crash. As a result,the university cancelled the e-mail address, effectively discarding all ofthe names.

The Women of Afghanistan Petition is Pointless, But Unstoppable

"It is our sincere hope that the hundreds of thousands of people whocontinue to attempt to reply will find a more productive outlet for theirconcerns," says an e-mail response from Brandeis University beseechingwell-intentioned petitioners to halt. Other organizations, it says, can helpthe women in Afghanistan. "Do not let this incident discourage you," itsaid. "Please do not forward unverified chain letters, no matter howcompelling they might seem."

The petition, however, refuses to die, and countless people continue to signit and pass it on, thinking they have done something worthwhile when, infact, they have created more cyber-junk and wasted their own time as well asthat of their friends.

Beyond the fact that the destination e-mail address is non-operational,petitions like this contain other inherent flaws. By asking to be forwardedto the reader's address book, it becomes a chain letter, violating the rulesof most Internet Service Providers that prohibit chain letters.

The construction of the chain means that the same names are being reproducedagain and again. Someone would have to edit these e-mails in order to knowthe real number of signers. And no one's editing. In addition, withoutasking for an address, phone number or a way to verify the signature, thenames might easily be invented or faked, invalidating the whole project.

A similar petition making the Internet rounds, with origins unknown andpossibly ill-intentioned, calls on readers to "Save the Women in Zimbabwe."Bearing a strong resemblance to the Afghanistan appeal, it details allegedatrocities against women in Zimbabwe. It makes the identical request to besigned, mailed on to friends and then returned to the same "sarabande"e-mail address. This strongly suggests that its author was carrying out anInternet hoax, tricking people into wasting time, energy and bandwidth.

Two years ago, two well-intentioned students at the University of NorthernColorado began an e-mail petition to raise money for the Public BroadcastingService. The result: Their university computer system crashed, but theirchain letter is still moving around the Internet, its facts and numbersquite outdated. A response letter from the university information servicesays:

"The petition you received from wein2688 concerning funding for PBS wasinitiated over two years ago by two freshman here who had good intentions,but poor methodology. Electronic signatures are virtually useless. One ofthe students, wein2688, left the school after one semester because thereaction to this 'junk mail' was so adverse."

E-mail Petitions Can Feel Good, But Are They Effective?

E-mail petitions can lull the sender into believing that her or his actionhas done some good, and then he or she may not look for other ways to help.Other recipient-senders may become disgusted and disillusioned with anyactivism that involves petitions and then stay away from useful collectiveendeavors.

"Following the Women of Afghanistan petition, the majority of activist listsubscribers, whether feminist or otherwise, became extremely wary ofsubsequent petitions," says Lynette Dumble, founder of the Global SisterhoodNetwork, an Australian feminist forum.

"They question their origin, basis, authenticity, privacy and recipient,before signing," Dumble said. "Solidarity is so important at this point intime, and the phony petitions have somewhat undermined the principles ofsolidarity."

An example of a useful petition can be found on the Website of the FeministMajority Foundation. Using the foundation's software, the reader's individual petition will be sent directly to the recipient of choice, with the signer's contact information and statement. Recipients of such authenticated petitions are far more likely to take them into account than other, less credible petitions.

[Editor's note: rabble.ca took a similar approach this past May, when we launched our first - and so far only - online petition. Activist Jaggi Singh had been arrested during Quebec Summit protests for possessing a "weapon", and was held without bail for two full weeks. Our petition to free Jaggi went live on May 4th. Within three days, we had gathered more than 5,000 signatures, and Singh was finally released on bail.

rabble addressed the "online signature" problem in this way: Each petitioner, after "signing" online, automatically received a confirmation notice by e-mail. He or she was required to e-mail the notice back to rabble to authenticate their identity. This meant every signature was tied to a verifiable e-mail address, and only one signature per address was permitted. Some signers found this process awkward. More than 1,000 petitioners didn't complete this final step - so their signatures were lost. But the signature-verfication process gave our effort the kind of credibility that online petitions generally lack.]

Even "Pointless" Petitions Can Raise Consciousness, Spur Involvement

However, some say e-mail petitions - even the pointless ones - can beexcellent ways of raising consciousness. The Women of Afghanistan petitionmade a huge number of people aware of the widespread abuses of women.Moreover, petitions also are used to collect the e-mail addresses ofinterested parties who later can be sent more information or solicited fordonations.

MoveOn, a grassroots organization that uses theInternet to build electronic advocacy groups in the United States, managedto collect $2-million, by first collecting people's names through an onlinepetition.

"Online petitions... are a great way to collect the names of people who havelike-minded beliefs and then mobilize them in other ways," said JanelleBrown, senior writer for Salon.

But even well-thought-out petitions may meet difficulties. After theRevolutionary Association for Women in Afghanistan (RAWA) was featured on the Oprah Winfrey show last year,so many viewers signed its Website petition that the whole software systemcrashed and all of the signatures were lost.

Still, the publicity and attention it received have more than made up forthe difficulties, says Selay, a spokesperson for the group. Selay (not her real name) believes the now notorious Women of Afghanistan petition wasbeneficial. "Its circulation on the Internet was itself a good experience.Many people came to know about the women's rights disaster in Afghanistanafter receiving that petition," Selay says.

Joy Pincus is the assistant editor and staff writer for Women'sInternational Net Magazine. She has reported on women's issues in Fiji, Austria and the United States. This article previously appeared on Women's Enews. It is reprinted with permission.

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