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What's wrong with email petitions?

As anyone who has actually attempted to send email to the address listed in the message has discovered, it does not exist – i.e., completed copies of the petition are simply bounced back from the server, rendering them useless.  That's not the only thing that can go wrong with email petitions, which have several inherent flaws:

  • In effect, they're self-perpetuating chain letters over which their originators have no control whatsoever. Recipients can and do alter the texts at will before passing them along, often corrupting the accuracy of the information. The circulation of e-petitions can neither be predicted nor limited. They cannot be recalled. They cannot be stopped. (Some existing email petitions are still circulating years after their originators disavowed them.)
  • Net-savvy users don't trust what they read in forwarded emails, and justifiably so. They're also likely to regard the whole business as bad Netiquette.
  • In true chain letter fashion, the same "signatures" are replicated over and over in multiple copies of the message. For example, I have on file approximately two dozen copies of the present petition sent to me from different locations all over the world. On the majority of those, the first five to fifteen names are identical. Consider the enormousness of the task – if anyone bothers to do it – of weeding out the repetitive "signatures." Consider the waste of time and resources.
  • In the absence of identifying details such as physical addresses and phone numbers, the names listed on these petitions are unverifiable and easily faked. They're unlikely to carry much weight with anyone in authority – especially as compared, say, to a flood of personal messages from a comparable number of individuals.


I'm not counseling apathy, nor am I saying that the Internet is useless as a means of protest. There are ways it can be effectively used. For example:

  • If you learn of an issue that concerns you, research it to make sure you have the correct facts, then:
  • Locate the email addresses of people in authority who can actually effect the changes you advocate. Write to them personally.
  • Notify your friends and acquaintances personally of the issue, providing links to resources by means which they can verify the information and email addresses of people they can contact.
  • Create a Website to function as a clearinghouse for reliable information and a place where concerned people can organize, share their views and strategize.
  • And don't forget snail mail, which is still a supremely effective tool, even in the digital age. Write postcards and letters. Collect real signatures on real paper and encourage others to do the same.

Some people argue that even if email petitions are ineffective as a tool of protest, they can at least, because of their wide circulation, inform vast numbers of people that certain problems exist. But it's just as arguable that "signing" such documents lulls people into a false sense of actually contributing to solutions.

Let's not confuse clicking "Forward" with moving forward.

Several organizations maintain Websites where you find information on the plight of the bile bears and take meaningful action on their behalf:

Further reading:

Bear Farming and Trade in China & Taiwan
Overview by Earthtrust Taiwan for Humane Society International

Animal Rights
From About: News, views and guidance for activists

Do Email Petitions Work?
Salon magazine waxes skeptical

News stories:

'Torture Chamber' Agony of China's Bears
BBC News: report dated April 5, 2000

Brigitte Bardot Demands China Free Bears
Inside China Today: Aug. 4, 2000 report from Agence France Press

End to an Ancient Practice
From Reuters, July 24, 2000: China takes first steps towards eliminating bear farms

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