Wednesday, March 30, 2005

futile acts of conscience

I just got - once again - a mass-forwarded email from a friend saying

The Brazilian congress is now voting on a project that will reduce the Amazon forest to 50% of its size. It will take 1 MINUTE to read this, but PLEASE put your names on the list and forward this on as instructed below...

If you are the 400th person to sign please send a copy to:

I really understand the concern of those who sign these things, but they have no effect, except to make concerned people feel like they've done something when they actually haven't.

There's no way to ascertain their 'genuineness'. In the absence of identifying details such as physical addresses and phone numbers, the names listed on these petitions are unverifiable and easily faked.

Anyone could simply grab a bunch of names from the web or a phone book. The petition you sign to stop rainforest destruction could easily be cut and pasted into a different petition for, say, legalising hate crimes or putting up a solid gold statue of Stalin in Trafalgar Square.

No organisation in the world - and least of all governments - takes email petitions seriously. Real petitions have a credited author and say who they're going to be sent to. Real online petitions have websites.

That said, even verifiable ones done with paper or online registration rarely achieve anything (unless you're in somewhere like Switzerland where a certain number of signatures forces a referendum). They're ineffective because more or less anyone will sign a petition for more or less anything.

But, perhaps most importantly here, these things can never be taken seriously simply because they don't work mathematically.

Let's say I'm name number one and send it to ten people. They all put their name as name number 2 and send it to ten people. By the time it gets to the sixth peson, my name will be on 10,000 'different' petitions. By the time it gets to 400 names, the point at which the recipient is asked to send it to the unexplained and in point of fact non-existant email address, it'd be on trillions of petitions.

There's a personal proof of this principle; the petition I just got has, like every other copy of it I've ever had, a friend of mine listed about 150 names in. She signed it about three years ago.

Another thing that makes them dubious is the factual basis. When there is some large claim, such as the destruction of 50% of the Amazon, and you've not heard anything about it elsewhere, it's worth taking a few seconds to verify it.

In this case, the fact is that Brazilian law requires land owners to protect 80% of their pristine rainforest land from development. The law mentioned was going to change that to 50%. Worrying, yes, but not the stated halving of the forest's present size.

The petition also says 'The Brazilian congress is now voting'. The plan was dropped by the Brazilian congress five years ago. The lack of any date on the petition means it will continue to bounce around the internet until there is no more forest or no more internet, whichever comes first.

This stuff is easily checked. If you type brazilian rainforest petition into Google, the results page is topped with a site called Urban Legends that explains it's guff.

The second result is titled Rainforest Petition Is All Wet and shows how the petitoin fails the site's 'sven tests of armchair activism'

Expiration - FAILED - As we've already seen, this one has outlived any usefulness it may have once had. But, since it's not dated, it continues to circulate as if new.

Focus - FAILED - This letter does a lot to convince you to sign it, but has no well defined action statement.

Integrity - FAILED - Whose actions are we trying to influence with this petition? It doesn't say who will receive the signatures, nor how they can bring about the desire change.

Privacy - FAILED - No e-mail petition is private. Once you sign it and send it on, you have no control over who sees your name and e-mail address.

Reliability - FAILED - Messages to the e-mail address in the letter bounce as undeliverable, so nobody is collecting these 'signatures.'

Sponsorship - FAILED - The author does not identify himself or herself, nor does he or she offer any assurances that the mission will be carried out.

Validity - FAILED - Since the measure it's supposed to stop has been shelved, the petition is no longer valid.

It took Google 0.19 seconds to return those results, which is a lot quicker than it takes someone to send the petition to their friends.

Don't feel bad if you've sent these things on. They are an expression of your concern for others and your noble will to stop things that should indeed be opposed.

But email petitions do not and cannot ever make any positive difference, they only serve to clog up our inboxes, give our email addresses to spambots, and distract us from doing things that really might achieve something.


Anonymous said...


i particularly hate emails sent by friends that have a "heart warming story" attached followed by a demand to send it to ten of your other friends or all your loved ones will be struck down by lighting or venereal disease

they suck and i wholeheartedly enjoy deleting them

Anonymous said...

I loathe those emails! Great read - do you mind if I post a link to you on my blog?

merrick said...

hey miss sarah,

net etiquette is still so new and unformed that it's often unclear what's OK, but my understanding is that it's fine to link without asking - if anything it's flattering!

So yay, go ahead!