False E-mail Petitions Spread Disinformation, Distrust

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Afghan women

(WOMENSENEWS)–"The government of Afghanistan is waging a war upon women," begins one of the better known, but virtually useless e-mail petitions circulating on the Internet today. In the last few years, an increasing number of petitions like this one have found their way into e-mail boxes around the world, many of them hoaxes and junk mail luring well-intentioned readers to respond in hopes of making a difference.

The by now infamous Women of Afghanistan petition is still making its rounds, sometimes revisiting the same people five, seven, and more times. The irksome e-mail may have alerted millions to the status of women in that war-torn region, but in the process has wasted the time of millions of sympathetic computer users.

"I am totally confused. This is at least the 10th time I have been sent this same petition," Nora Gold wrote to members of her feminist forum in Israel. "The situation of women in Afghanistan is obviously a terrible problem and we all need to be doing whatever we can, in ways that are effective. What’s the real story with this petition?"

This petition, detailing atrocities being committed against the women in Afghanistan by the ruling fundamentalist Taliban, encourages readers to sign their names and pass it on to all members of their address books. Every 50th signer is requested to send it back to the address: sarabande at Brandeis University. No one knows for sure who sarabande is, or if sarabande exists.

This e-mail address has been permanently closed for almost two years. Less than two weeks after the petition was started by Brandeis University student Melissa Buckheit, the hundreds of thousands of e-mails received caused the entire Brandeis computer system to crash. As a result, the university cancelled the e-mail address, effectively discarding all of the names.

The Women of Afghanistan Petition Is Pointless, But Unstoppable

"It is our sincere hope that the hundreds of thousands of people who continue to attempt to reply will find a more productive outlet for their concerns," says an e-mail response from Brandeis University beseeching well-intentioned petitioners to halt. Other organizations, it says, can help the women in Afghanistan. "Do not let this incident discourage you," it said. "Please do not forward unverified chain letters, no matter how compelling they might seem."

The petition, however, refuses to die, and countless people continue to sign it and pass it on, thinking they have done something worthwhile when, in fact, they have created more cyber-junk and wasted their own time as well as that of their friends.

Beyond the fact that the destination e-mail address is non-operational, petitions like this contain other inherent flaws. By asking to be forwarded to the reader’s address book, it becomes a chain letter, violating the rules of most Internet Service Providers that prohibit chain letters.

The construction of the chain means that the same names are being reproduced again and again. Someone would have to edit these e-mails in order to know the real number of signers. And no one’s editing. In addition, without asking for address, phone number or a way to verify the signature, the names might easily be invented or faked, invalidating the whole project.

A similar petition making the Internet rounds, with origins unknown and possibly ill-intentioned, calls on readers to "Save the Women in Zimbabwe." Bearing a strong resemblance to the Afghanistan appeal, it details alleged atrocities against women in Zimbabwe. It makes the identical request to be signed, mailed on to friends and then returned to the same "sarabande" e-mail address. This strongly suggests that its author was carrying out an Internet hoax, tricking people into wasting time, energy and bandwidth.

Two years ago, two well-intentioned students at the University of Northern Colorado began an e-mail petition to raise money for the Public Broadcasting Service. The result: Their university computer system crashed, but their chain letter is still moving around the Internet, its facts and numbers quite outdated. A response letter from the university information service says:

"The petition you received from wein2688 concerning funding for PBS was initiated over two years ago by two freshman here who had good intentions but poor methodology. Electronic signatures are virtually useless. One of the students, wein2688, left the school after one semester because the reaction to this ‘junk mail’ was so adverse."

E-mail Petitions Can Feel Good, But They’re Not Effective

E-mail petitions can lull the sender into believing that her or his action has done some good, and then he or she may not look for other ways to help. Other recipient-senders may become disgusted and disillusioned with any activism that involves petitions, and then stay away from useful collective endeavors.

"Following the Women of Afghanistan petition, the majority of activist list subscribers, whether feminist or otherwise, became extremely wary of subsequent petitions," says Lynette Dumble, founder of the Global Sisterhood Network, an Australian feminist forum.

"They question their origin, basis, authenticity, privacy and recipient, before signing," Dumble said. "Solidarity is so important at this point in time, and the phony petitions have somewhat undermined the principles of solidarity."

An example of a useful petition can be found on the website of the Feminist Majority Foundation. Using the foundation’s software, the reader’s individual petition will be sent directly to the recipient of choice, with the signer’s contact information and statement. Recipients of such authenticated petitions are far more likely to take them into account than other, less credible petitions.

Even Pointless Petitions Can Raise Consciousness, Spur Involvement

However, some say e-mail petitions, even the pointless ones, can be excellent ways of raising consciousness. The Women of Afghanistan petition made a huge number of people aware of the widespread abuses of women.

Moreover, petitions also are used to collect the e-mail addresses of interested parties who later can be sent more information or solicited for donations.

MoveOn, a grassroots organization that uses the Internet to build electronic advocacy groups in the United States, managed to collect $2 million, by first collecting people’s names through an online petition.

"Online petitions … are a great way to collect the names of people who have like-minded beliefs and then mobilize them in other ways," said Janelle Brown, senior writer for Salon Technologies.

But even well thought-out petitions may meet difficulties. After the Revolutionary Association for Women in Afghanistan was featured on the Oprah Winfrey show several months ago, so many viewers signed its Web site petition that the whole software system crashed and all of the signatures were lost.

Still, the publicity and attention they received have more than made up for the difficulties, says Selay, a spokesperson for the Revolutionary Association for Women in Afghanistan. Selay, a pseudonym, believes the now notorious Women of Afghanistan petition was beneficial:

"Its circulation on the Internet was itself a good experience. Many people came to know about the women’s rights disaster in Afghanistan after receiving that petition," Selay says.

Joy Pincus is the assistant editor and staff writer for Women’s International Net Magazine, http://www.winmagazine.org/. She has reported on women’s issues in Fiji, Austria and the United States.


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