E-Mail Petitions

by Jay Johansen
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Are petitions effective?

I wonder how effective petitions are in general. If a politician is firmly in favor of X, if he runs for office on a pro-X platform, if he gets a lot of his campaign contributions from pro-X activist groups, is he going to vote anti-X because anti-X activists sent him a petition? On the other hand, there are many issues that any given politician doesn't care very much about. Suppose a politician is mostly concerned about, say, gun control. That's the topic of all his campaigning and most of his support comes from people who agree with him on gun control. Then one day he gets a petition with thousands of signatures from people who disagree with him about immigration. He might say, "Hey, if this is what most Americans think about immigratin, okay, I'll vote that way. That might make the difference to getting me re-elected so I can continue to pursue my goals on gun control." And let's be frankly cynical: A lot of politicians don't have any issues that they really believe in. They just want to stay in office, so if you can convince them that the majority of the voters support X, they'll promptly decide that they not only support X also, but have supported it for as long as they can remember.

Are e-mail petitions effective?

But there's one kind of petition that I am sure is ineffective. That's the e-mail petition.

If you're not familiar with these, they work like this: Someone writes a petition just like they would for a traditional paper petition. Then they type their own name at the bottom as the first signer and send the petition as an email to one or more of their friends. They ask each friend to sign it and pass it on.

There are several big problems with an e-mail petition.

The first and biggest is: How will the signatures be collected and presented to the intended recipient? When a petition is sent around by e-mail, how do the signatures ever get back to the person who is trying to organize this? If you instruct each person who gets the e-mail to add his or her signature and forward it on to one other person, then if just one person in this chain does not sign and forward it -- whether because they do not support the petition or just because they don't bother or forget -- then all the signatures collected up to that time are lost. If ten thousand people dutifully sign and forward the petition, but the next person does not, then all ten thousand signatures collected up to that time are lost. This problem is obvious enough that most e-mail petitions include instructions to forward the e-mail to "everyone you know". But still, if anyone who signs the petition forwards it, and then none of the people he forwarded it to keep it going, his signature and all the signatures that are on his copy are lost.

I have never seen an e-mail peition with instructions on how to get this back to the organizer at some point. How do they expect to collect the signatures? I strongly suspect that the vast majority of e-mail petitions just circulate among people who already agree with the subject until they reach enough people who don't bother to keep forwarding them, and they fizzle out.

But suppose the writer thought this through and included instructions that said, for example, that anyone who receives the petition after such-and-such a date should sign it and then send it back to the organizer with all the signatures collected. There would then at least be hope of collecting all these names.

Then we get to the next problem. As noted above, for there to be any hope of keeping the petition moving, each person who signs must forward to many people. But this means that, if we are successful, we will quickly get many copies of the petition each with different sets of signatures. Suppose Al signs it and forwards to a bunch of people. Of these, Bob and Betty sign and both pass it on. Bob sends to Carol and Clark who both sign. Betty sends to Chuck and Clyde. We now have one copy with Al, Bob, and Carol; another with Al, Bob, and Clark; another with Al, Betty, and Chuck; and a fourth with Al, Betty, and Clyde. As this goes on, the earliest names will be duplicated many many times. If all the copies manage to make it back to the organizer, surely he will have to make some effort to eliminate the duplicates. Otherwise anyone he gives this petition to is going to say, "Wow, 20,000 names! But wait, Fred Smith's name is on here twice. No, there it is again. And again. Hey, Fred Smith's name is on here at least twenty times. And look at this, Mary Brown is on here at least ten times. How many people really signed this thing?" etc. You can't expect the recipient to sort out all the duplicate names. Once he sees a bunch of duplicates, he's not going to bother to sort through it. He's just going to conclude that the petition is at best an unorganized mess, and at worst a fraud.

Who will validate all the signatures, and how? On a paper petition, we can at least see that the signatures are all in different handwriting. I'm sure that people trying to fool us with counterfeit petitions have faked different handwriting, but this is at least an obstacle. On an e-mail petition the signatures are all typed. Anyone could open the phone book and type in a bunch of names. Indeed, this is on a computer. Any competent computer programmer could write a program that would create a bunch of made-up names. (I once wrote a computer game that invented names for the characters by taking a modest set of common first names, and then inventing last names by combining syllables according to some semi-random rules, like it would often end a name with "-son" or "-er". Some of the names were pretty strange sounding, but lots of people have strange-sounding names. Or if a scheme like that requires too much thought, just collect names off the Internet.)

On paper petitions, signers are normally asked to give some identification of themselves beyond just their names, like an address. For petitions that actually have legal weight, like those to get a candidate on the ballot, the signers are normally required to identify the precinct where they are registered to vote or some other information to make it possible to verify that this is a real person. I have never seen an e-mail petition that asked for anything beyond the person's name. Even if this was done, again, someone could just get names out of the phone book. Who's going to verify that the person named really signed the petition?


So you want to circulate a petition. You're convinced this is a good idea.

If you are determined to use the Internet to collect signatures, may I at least suggest that you use a web petition instead of an e-mail petition. That is, set up a web site where people can type in their names. There are sites out there that will apparently host anyone's petition, like ipetitions.com and webpetitions.com. Or you could set up your own site. This is better than e-mail because they give you a way to collect the signatures. They can also make at least some effort to automatically weed out duplicates, and they can require the signer to enter some information that could be used to verify their identity, for example, the sites I just mentioned ask the signer for an e-mail address. With your own site you could collect additional verification information, whatever you think might be convincing.

But much as I love computers and the Internet, I think this is a case where you are really better to go with the old-fashioned, low-tech paper approach. Without handwritten signatures, no one will be convinced that any of the people named really support your cause. Yes, there are ways to verify someone's identity on the computer. If you collect e-mail addresses with signatures, this gives some evidence that the person really exists. Not that you couldn't make up fake e-mail addresses to go along with fake names of course, but someone who wanted to verify signers could send a message to these e-mail addresses asking if this person really did sign this petition. (Either writing to every signer, or just picking a few as a random sample.) There are more sophisticated techniques, like "digital signing" with public/private key infrastructure. But most people who might sign your petition don't have such digital signatures and aren't going to bother to get one just to sign your petition, and the recipient may well not understand how digital signatures work and so may not find them convincing anyway.

Until the technology develops further, stick with paper.

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March 29, 2009

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