Do e-mail petitions work?

Chain letters and spam rarely impress politicians -- but they might listen to a more personal breed of Web activism.

Published May 10, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

You've probably received an e-mail petition protesting a proposal to cut Congressional funding for public broadcasting and the arts. In fact, you've likely received it more than once.

What you may not know is that it has been making the rounds since 1995, when two University of Northern Colorado freshmen -- who, like most people at the time, were new to the Internet -- e-mailed it to their friends. Recipients were supposed to tack on their names, pass it along and -- after every 50th signature -- forward a copy to the authors.

The petition snowballed, and not in a good way. The university's server was inundated with replies, many of them venomous.

"A lot of people consider those things spam," says a programmer at the university's information services department, who asked not to be identified. "There were a lot of suggestions as to what to do with the creators, most of them not very kind."

The pair's frosh mistake was to presume that flooding e-mail inboxes with a well-intentioned petition would be well received. But as this ceaselessly circulating petition and many others have shown, e-mail activism doesn't always have a WD-40 effect on the wheels of participatory democracy: It backfires as often as it succeeds. The secret to making online activism effective seems to be knowing when to turn to e-mail and what to use it for.

There is, of course, a distinction to be made between using e-mail to communicate and using it to reproduce spam-like petitions. Chain letters have proven themselves to be fairly useless; more sophisticated petitions, posted to a Web site that collects signatures, have garnered more respect.

Plenty of people argue that e-mail simply doesn't lend itself direct communication between the people and their representatives. "You want to make noise as an advocate -- you want the walls to shake," says Jonah Seiger, co-founder of Mindshare Internet Campaigns, a Washington new-media political consulting firm. "E-mail has no weight, no mass. It comes in quietly."

Seiger says e-mail is best used by an organization to communicate with its members. "It's the single most important tool in its ability to keep people informed and keep them interested in something," he says. Groups ranging from the World Wildlife Federation to the National Rifle Association have e-mail action alert lists, and many provide standardized letters on hot-button issues that can be edited and then sent to members of Congress by e-mail or fax.

But some groups say e-mail's uses go beyond information and mobilization -- it can also bring concrete results. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) uses e-mail to rally support for its Arctic wilderness campaign. The effort aims to prevent oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which the group claims is the only area along Alaska's north slope not open for oil and gas drilling. By urging university students to e-mail British Petroleum, ARCO and Chevron (Exxon, as far as U.S. PIRG can tell, has no public e-mail address) and ask them to cancel their drilling plans, the group has sparked three separate waves of e-mail protest.

"We got their attention and held it," says Athan Manuel, director of the campaign. A month after the first Arctic action day, the group got a call from BP, its biggest target, he says. "We've met with them three or four times now, and each time, we met with someone more and more senior -- the last meeting was even with someone who was British! That was a first."

Web-based petitions, too, have shown an ability to harness public sentiment and support. A petition protesting the Communications Decency Act in 1995 collected 115,000 signatures, according to Seiger. He helped organize both the petition and the related "black page protest," in which many Web sites went dark to demonstrate opposition to the law. More recently, the Censure and Move On campaign -- founded by Joan Blades and her husband Web Boyd -- used a Web-based petition to urge Congress to formally admonish President Clinton and get on with its business, gathering 500,000 signatures along the way. Move On also used e-mail to direct people to the site, asking interested parties to send it only to friends and not spam indiscriminately.

"E-mail is a unique way for people to be involved directly," says Blades, adding that the Web-based model works best for single issues that attract a broad range of participants. The Move On site now features a new Littleton, Colo.-inspired petition, asking visitors to add their names in support of the idea that it is time for government to accept its proper role in regulating firearms.

Web-based petitions work because they have the potential to channel protest to the most appropriate recipient, the sender's representative or senator, says Chris Casey, a Congressional staffer and author of "The Hill on the Net: Congress Enters the Information Age." That's key, since a recent study shows that most members of Congress don't pay attention to e-mail from outside the home district. (Many legislators don't post their e-mail addresses and some, like Dick Armey, have introduced elaborate forms to ensure that their only communication is with their own constituents.)

Meanwhile, other groups have discovered Web-based activism. Visitors to Families USA can sign a petition urging their congressperson to enact a patient's bill of rights. At the June 4 site (named for the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre), visitors can add their names to a petition protesting China's human rights record that will be delivered to Chinese President Jiang Zemin, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson. And Toledo, Ohio, voters can participate in a movement to recall mayor Carty Finkbeiner -- although the site requires people to print out the petition and physically sign it. "Opportunities in this area are going to continue," predicts Casey.

To be sure, it can be hard to pin down the results of online activism. The Communications Decency Act ultimately passed Congress (it was later ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court), while Censure and Move On didn't convince Congress to do either. Though organizers didn't achieve their political goals, they say they did have an impact. Blades of Move On concedes that the petition got very little direct feedback from Congress, but as signatures started coming in, it seemed to bolster the Democrats to speak up against impeachment. Move On also attracted $13.2 million in campaign contributions, and volunteers pledged to spend a total of 750,000 hours supporting candidates who oppose those who voted for impeachment.

Meanwhile, Congress is getting more receptive to e-mail. A 1998 Bonner & Associates/American University survey of 270 Congressional offices showed that 90 percent of the offices used e-mail, with most of the others planning to do so within a year.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who co-founded and co-heads the bipartisan Congressional Internet Caucus, pays attention to electronic messages. "He's put e-mail on par with phone and mail messages," says
Leahy's spokesman David Carle. But not everyone is so inclined. When considering a policy position, most Congressional offices give the most weight to personal letters, followed by personal visits, telephone calls, faxes, personal e-mails, paper petitions, form letters, postcards and form e-mail, according to a recent study by OMB Watch, a nonprofit group focusing on activities at the Office of Management and Budget.

Basically, congressional offices don't give equal weight to preprinted, postage-paid postcards and handwritten, stamped letters, and they apply that same framework to e-mail. "People think, 'Why stop with my own congressperson? I can cc them all!' Somehow they think they have a louder voice if they send it to every member of Congress," says Casey. In fact, legislators treat such spam-like messages the same way we all do.

Sites that use the "click here and e-mail every member of the U.S. Senate" aren't effective, adds Casey, and "e-mail sent to everyone in Congress is likely to be received by no one." To be counted, send it to a single member -- either your own representative or a committee head responsible for a particular issue. "E-mail, done right, has every expectation of being received and responded to," he says.

That response will still likely come by regular mail. And just 15 percent of the Congressional offices surveyed use e-mail to keep constituents up-to-date on issues that may be important to them, according to the Bonner/American University study.

Casey is optimistic that e-mail and other forms of electronic democracy are increasing participation, saying that there's no indication that phone and letter contacts are going down. But he urges people to think beyond the confines of e-mail petitions. When e-mail doesn't provoke an anti-spam rage, or generate petition fatigue, it can give people a false sense of having done something worthwhile. "People end up feeling that they've had a voice," he says. "In fact, they've been misled."

E-mail activism actually follows the common-sense rules that govern most communications. It can be effective -- but only when the medium is used respectfully, by one individual or group making a sincere attempt to share ideas with another.

By Katherine Hobson

Katherine Hobson is a staff reporter for and a freelance writer in New York.

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