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[Whatever your cause, online petitions are a good way to spread the word]

   Shirley Singh

Sometimes a good cause is only as good as the attention it catches.

Whether it's individuals, vested interest groups, corporations or whole governments you're opposing, the success of a difficult campaign could depend on letting people know. The more people know, the more they will speak up, and act.

Spreading the word. That's what online petitioning is all about.

The tribal town of Mollarpur, West Bengal, is an ugly scene of stone quarry owners exploiting impoverished tribals, economic deprivation, sexual exploitation and police complicity. Read about how Kunal Deb rallied the Santhal tribals and helped them fight back. Right now, Deb is in jail, accused by the quarry owners of anti-tribal activities. Swati Sircar, who put up the petition to free him, says, "The main effect of our online signature campaign has been raising awareness. This helped us find people to help out in concrete ways."

In many other cases, people have begun to use the Web to campaign for their cause. When the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) cancelled the screening of Ashok Patwardhan's films ("We are not your Monkeys" and "In the Name of God") following threats from certain right-wing Hindu groups, Raj Barot put up a petition urging the AMNH to screen them.

Also, Sabitha, Dilip Simeon and others wish to protest the violence in Gujarat and exhort the government to take action against the guilty.

Some petitions are more ideological. For instance, Mukund Jagannathan felt that a "severe, fundamental attack like the one on December 13, 2001 on the Indian Parliament died down too soon in the minds of the people". He put up a petition stating "India's Failure in Presenting Its Case in Western Media," stressing that the Indian Government needs to work on its communication strategy in the West.

Similarly Vijay Yadav complains of an 'Anti-India bias in Canada's Newspapers'.

Others appear frivolous. A certain Killa Singh feels Bhangra CDs are a rip-off. We doubt he's looking for any kind of response, considering that his email address is defunct.

Creating public awareness exerts pressure on those to whom the petition is directed. Besides, as a petition gains momentum, several things happen. Says Randy Paynter, Founder and CEO of Care2.com, which hosts Petitionsite.com, "Remember, the effect of a petition usually goes far beyond the actual list of signatures. Journalists write stories, signers get inspired to take additional action, and other "potential targets" change their behavior to avoid being the next target."

Petition strategy

Sending a petition to hundreds of people, asking them to forward it to their friends, who should further forward it to others, has emerged as a rather careless way to campaign. Such petitions command little respect, are difficult to monitor, get distorted and lost, and usually achieve no real progress.

So, posting your plea on petition sites like PetitionOnline.com, Petitionsite.com or Gopeitition.com is a better idea. This way, you have one master copy of your petition online at a specific address, and the signatories can be monitored and galvanised. You could then link your petition on your personal Web page and send the link to people you think would be interested: relevant activist groups, Web sites that are sympathetic to the cause, online forums and other media.

Or like PETA, you can post a petition on your own site. Says Anuradha Sawhney, Chief Functionary, PETA India, "We have action alerts on our Web site, which we update all the time. We also send these alerts to a focused mailing list, publicise the petition in other media, and link to other Indian NGO sites."

Non-Governmental organisations can check out Mahiti, which exclusively looks at options for NGOs and activists on the Internet.

Making it work

  • Draft your petition well. Get your facts right, keep it short and simple, be precise and then ask yourself one question - "Is it interesting?"

  • Avoid "Forward All"; email your petition to the right people. "Spamming is counterproductive," says Jagannathan. It has inspired terms like 'anti-spam rage' and 'petition fatigue'. Sawhney urges, "Make sure you send a petition to the kind of people who will respond to it. Too often a petition gets lost or is unable to achieve what it set out to do because it got forwarded to the wrong people."

    "The fact is that there are probably one or two people on your list who are extremely well connected, and who could help you spread the word faster than by sending the message out to your other 20 friends," says Paynter, "Think strategically and focus on those opportunities that will produce the best results, given your resources."
  • Decide what you will do with the response.

    How many of us signed the "Petition for Afghan Women's Rights" and agitatedly forwarded it to all we could? This was the outcome: "Due to a flood of hundreds of thousands of messages in response to an unauthorized chain letter, all mail to sarabande@brandeis.edu is being deleted unread. It will never be a valid email address again. sarabande@brandeis.edu was not an organisation, but a person who was totally unprepared for the inevitable consequences of telling thousands of people to tell fifty of their friends to tell fifty of their friends to send her email."
Certainly far from the ideal end result. So when you are ready to go online with your cause, make sure you can handle the response.


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