Squashing Chain Petitions

[10/2/02]  The following mail contain useful information about chain petitions:


It's not petition gathering that is illegitimate, it's the nature of these particular petitions. All petitions that ask the 25th, 50th, etc. person to send the petition back in are illegitimate. Not because the subject of the petition is bad, but because email does not work that way. If I send you a petition, and ask you to send it to 10 people, and for them to send it to 10 people and for the 25th person to send it back to me, billions of email messages will pour back into my inbox. Your email inbox is set up for regular email traffic -- not to receive billions of emails at one time.

If billions of email come into my inbox (at the University of Michigan, or at AOL), it will totally mess up the entire email system. For this reason, as soon as the people running the email see that billions of email are coming in, they kill that person's account, and send all email addressed to that person into a "black hole" where it gets deleted. In the meantime, people continue to forward the petition, and "sign" in and it goes around and around and people think they are doing a good thing. Then the 25th person tries to send the petition "back" and they get back an automated message saying, "we have killed this persons account because they misused their email. your email will not be received". All of those signatures disappear, and they never reach an elected official or anyone who can do anything about the problem.

Every single email petition that works exponentially like this one (25th person, 50th person, etc) is no longer working. The "Save Sesame Street" NEA petition, the gay and lesbian employees of American Airlines petition, the Women of Afghanistan petition -- none of them go anywhere, they are all going into a black hole.

The right way to do a petition is to ask people to go a webpage and "sign" their name there. Webpages are set up to allow hundreds of people to use it at one time. Email inboxes are not.

The only way to tell whether a petition is legitimate is to write to the person who is supposed to be *collecting* the signatures. If they write back, the petition is still active. If you get back an automated response saying that that account no longer works, the petition is dead. I have never found an email petition like the one you sent that actually works. Checking with http://urbanlegends.about.com/library/blxprotest.htm is helpful.

Here is the page about your petition: http://urbanlegends.about.com/library/bl-un-petition.htm?terms=no+war+.

It has been circulating since September 2001. This is what you get when you try to turn in the petition:

----------------------------------------------------------------- The email account you are trying to reach, unicwash@unicwash.org, recently closed due to a massive petition campaign that was started by an unknown source. While the intentions were admirable, this petition generated thousands of emails and has caused serious computer problems on our system. For those looking to send a petition somewhere, we suggest sending a postal letter to your government representative. -------------------------------------------------------------------

So, what people need to do, is try to send mail to unicwash@unicwash.org BEFORE they send out the petition to their friends. If everyone did this, the petition would die b/c it does not work.

I believe it is the responsibility of people sending information to make sure that they are not helping to spread misinformation, hoaxes, false virus warnings, or false petitions. When you receive unsigned and unattributed and unauthenticated information over the Internet, it is your job to try to authenticate the information before passing it on. Each person has that responsibility. The fact that these petitions continue to circulate gives everyone the impression that this is the right way to do a petition. It is not. It also gives people the impression that they have done something useful when they sign and forward it, that they are "doing something". They have not. Signing a petition that is going to be thrown away is not the same thing as signing one that is going to be given to someone with the power to change something.

If I handed you a print petition and then threw it in the trash, wouldn't that be unethical?

I'm sorry that I feel so strongly about something that surely seems like a very small thing, but this happens to be something I really care about. Technology is changing the way we do everything. It's important for people to understand how the technology works and does not work. The Internet allows so many excellent things to happen, like having Jesse send us his first-hand impressions of a refugee camp that we can forward around the world. But it also allows anyone to lie and send that lie around the world. The Internet makes us all journalists -- we all get to publish and republish information. That means that, like journalists, we need to operate at a higher standard than most people and be careful not to republish information that is incorrect.

That's my speech. I'll try to only make it once. Be well, sk.


Susan Kane School of Information, University of Michigan '98

Squashing Chain Letters