But some say they just point to a slackening of activist zeal
By Steve Orr
Democrat and Chronicle
(February 17, 2003) — A few weeks ago, Kate Kremer found herself in Rep. Louise Slaughter’s Rochester office, a pair of kids in tow and a big, fat petition in her hands.
The road that took Kremer there led mostly through the Internet. The petition, which urged the Bush administration to favor inspections in Iraq instead of war, was organized through e-mail. It had been signed through a Web site, promoted online and on television, and sorted with a database program.
All Kremer and others had to do was deliver it.
“The nice thing about the involvement of the Internet is it helps us break things down and make things manageable for people who might not be full-time activists,” said Kremer, a Brighton homemaker. “I think it has the value of connecting a lot of people who otherwise would not be connected. At least I feel that no matter what happens, I was able to speak my voice.”
The petition delivered in late January to Slaughter, D-Fairport, and hundreds of other members of Congress, was a conspicuous and highly organized example of an ever-more-popular Internet staple.
Online petitions have bounced around the Net for at least a decade, and probably much longer. No one seems to have counted those that exist today, but a quick survey turned up more than 7,000.
The petitions, which people can sign via Web sites or e-mail, gather expressions of support or opposition on every conceivable topic. Some are deadly serious, focusing on human rights, religious freedom, environmental threats or animal abuse.
Others are more frivolous, asking that an unpopular coach be fired by his sports team, or that a television network renew an obscure show facing cancellation. There even is an online petition against online petitions -- as well as a petition opposing that petition.
Whether any of these electronic petitions actually work by persuading someone in power to act is open to debate. Victories are claimed from time to time, though it’s sometimes hard to tell whether the petitions, or other forms of pressure, carried more weight.
Still, supporters claim that in the political arena especially, online petitions are the wave of the future.
“From my point of view, electronic petitioning will be the town crier of the 21st century,” said Richard Dollinger, the former Democratic state senator from Brighton who built several legislative victories around petitions he started.
“It’s the way to both hear and be heard in government. It harkens back to the time when everybody lived within the sound of everybody else’s voice. Now, everybody lives within a few keystrokes of each other.”
Not everyone is sanguine about the use of electronic petitions. Critics say some problems stem from the fact that online petitions are fleeting and insecure.
They can be lost, neglected or forgotten by the people who are supposed to care for or deliver them. Signatures can be faked and forged, undermining a document’s credibility.
Names and e-mail addresses can be surreptitiously harvested by unscrupulous entrepreneurs, who sell them to spammers, who then bombard the original signatories with junk mail. Petition-signers have also been known to contract computer viruses in cases where viruses infested Web sites hosting the documents.
Several of these complaints are embodied in the experience of Tom Hess of Irondequoit, who drafted a petition nearly two years ago demanding that Monroe County officials provide funding for a new soccer stadium in Rochester.
He placed his appeal on PetitionOnline, which is among the largest of many Web sites that host petitions for free, and managed to collect an impressive 1,000 signatures in two months’ time.
Once he’d printed out the results and presented them to county lawmakers in June 2001, Hess said, he asked PetitionOnline to kill the petition out of its system. But it’s still there and people are still signing it, to no good purpose.
Hess also has noted a huge increase in junk e-mail; he can’t prove it, but he suspects that someone purloined his e-mail address during the petitioning process.
“If I had it to do over again, I probably wouldn’t,” Hess said.
His dissatisfaction also stemmed from the result: The petition didn’t prevent county officials from denying funding to a new stadium.
“My judgment is that it had no impact upon the legislators,” Hess said.
So do political leaders take online petitions more or less seriously than other communications? Yes, they say, and no.
For starters, all communications -- letters, e-mail, petitions, phone calls -- are typically logged, according to politicians and political staffers interviewed for this story.
The elected official may not see them all, but usually is given a summary of the constituents’ views, they said.
Emphasis is placed on constituents. Many officials say they pay little attention to communiques, petition signatures included, from faraway citizens.
“First and foremost on a legislator’s mind is, are these people in my district,” said Mack Mariani, chief of staff for the Republicans in the County Legislature and previously an aide to former Rep. Bill Paxon, R-Amherst.
Officials also say that the closer to home the issue is, the more seriously the petition will be taken. “When you’re dealing with a petition of neighbors who want speed reduced on a road, that can be an effective way to get legislators to notice,” Mariani said. “We got one on the (Iraq) war the other day. There’s not much we can do with that.”
One attraction of e-petitions is that a well-coordinated campaign or hot-button issue can lure legions of people to sign on, and fast. MoveOn.org, the group that organized the petition against the Iraq war, gathered 300,000 signatures in a few weeks, then sorted them geographically and parceled them out to local activists.
Some argue, though, that that same ease of use detracts from the effectiveness of online petitions. Mariani, among others, believes that Internet petitions are usually given less weight.
“They don’t come close to individualized, personal letters,” Mariani said. “I think you’d pay more attention to 10 personalized letters than 1,000 signatures on an online petition.”
Because they can be circulated with so little effort, some deride e-petitions as “slacktivism”(that’s “slacker” plus “activism”), a way to salve one’s conscience without breaking a sweat.
Not so, says Teresa Carroll, a graduate student at Rochester Institute of Technology who’s writing her master’s thesis on electronic activism. “I think that can be said about any petition. When you’re stopped at the mall to sign a petition, do you really follow up on it?,” she said. “I don’t think the Internet is any different. It’s just a different tool.
“It’s not that the Internet is any great magic wand that will help you get the attention of legislators. You still have to use a lot of elbow grease,” Carroll said. “But it does help you organize better.”
Democrat and Chronicle
(February 17, 2003)