Editorial: The renewed potential of online petitions

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November/December 2010:

ANIMAL PEOPLE has never circulated a petition, online or
otherwise. Yet one of our frequent functions in recent years is
helping to inform and inspire online petition drives–and,
sometimes, to point out that a petition may do more harm than good.
The popularity of petitions as a protest tactic perhaps began
with the success of English nobility in obliging King John to assent
to the Magna Carta at Runnymede in June 1215. The Declaration of
Independence, addressed by American colonists to King George III,
reinforced the lesson on July 4, 1776. Subsequent petitioners have
often lost sight of the two elements that made these petitions
memorably effective. The first was that in either case the signers
were influential constituents of the king whom they sought to
persuade. The second was that their actions had consequence. When
John Hancock stepped forward to become first to sign the Declaration
of Independence, his action had moral force because he put more than
just his name on the line. This is what inspired others to add their
signatures to his and then tax themselves heavily to back their words
with the effort to introduce a new regime.

Petitions to this day tend to be most effective when the
petitioners are people whom the petition recipient has reason to take
seriously, for instance because they might vote the recipient out of
office, and when signing in some manner signifies enduring concern,
sufficient to influence a vote or a major economic decision even
several years later.
In 1968 the privatization of the U.S. Postal Service changed
the nature of petitioning somewhat by introducing bulk mail
discounts–and direct mail fundraising, as we have known it ever
since. Established charities already had mailing lists, but the
upstarts who initiated the animal rights movement did not. As few
lists of animal advocates were available for rent and trade before
the early 1980s, the new organizations used petitioning to build
mailing lists–and to this day make heavy use of petitions in donor
acquisition mailings.
Whatever a mass-mailed petition achieves toward changing
public policy came to be secondary in import to developing a support
base. Petitions evolved to much less often mention specific current
legislation, and came to be worded more to attract names and
addresses than to actually influence the petition recipients.
But the strategic approaches of the Magna Carta and
Declaration of Independence were not altogether forgotten. Usually
seeking to build national mailing lists, direct mail petitioners
almost exclusively address federal issues, so that the same text can
be used in every state. In addition, combining petition-based
list-building with appealing for donations tends to get respondents
to make a monetary gesture of commitment. This is a matter of
interest to politicians. A mere list of names of people who mostly
do not vote in a politician’s district may not impress a politican,
but a list of donors whose money might be pooled to make or break the
politician’s re-election bid requires consideration.
The introduction of the Internet and the World Wide Web
expanded the focus of petitioners to collecting e-mail addresses,
but for a decade or more online petitioning was mostly done much like
direct mail petitioning. The speed and reach of electronic media
enabled petitioners to increase exponentially the numbers of
endorsements they attracted. Yet, because “signing” an electronic
petition requires only a mouse-click, and until recently was
relatively seldom accompanied by financial commitment, petitioning
came to be devalued as a campaign tactic. Indeed, petition targets
can quickly use a “merge/purge” program to compare the names on an
electronic petition with their customer and constitutent lists to see
whether the signers have any real leverage–and usually most do not.
Electronic petitions would not have fazed Kings John and George III.
Then came the Care2 Petition Site and Facebook petitions,
enabling almost anyone to collect tens of thousands of signatures
from around the world almost overnight. The Care2 Petition Site and
Facebook have democratized electronic petitioning, and brought it
back to the local level, too. Suddenly there is an inexpensive,
practical way for petitioners to address state and local concerns in
a very specific manner.
Even more recently, Facebook pages linked to the Network for
Good donation processing site often help to fund the local campaigns
that the petitions support.
Years after spam filters threatened to kill online
petitioning, there are more online petitions from more organizations
and individual activists than ever–and online petitioning is more
effective than ever, when used to rally actual constituents of
power-holders in a manner that shows authentic understanding of the
issues and signifies continuing commitment.
Checking a box on an electronic petition e-mailed to a
politician that requests updates about whatever the petition
recipient does to redress a grievance may not impress most
politicians as much as receiving a campaign donation, but does give
the politicians a coveted addition to their electronic mailing lists
and puts them on notice that action is expected.
The requirements of successful electronic petitioning are
really much the same as the requirements of successful activism using
any other tactic, and have not changed since Runnymede. An
effective petition must address the people who have the authority to
make the requested change. The requested change must be feasible.
The requested change must be thought through, so that introducing it
does not create a more serious problem than it rectifies. The
petition must be both timely and factually accurate. Most important,
the recipient must perceive both positive and negative consequences
that might result from either acting upon the advice of a petition or
dismissing it. Though King John had his kingdom to lose at
Runnymede, he also had the possibility of winning back the political
support of the English nobility: he was not in the position of
having everything to lose, nothing to gain, and therefore no reason
to refrain from ordering that the petition-bearers be beheaded.
A quick check of current Care2 or Facebook petitions on any
given day will discover examples of petitions that mean well, yet
waste the time required to click a “signature.”
For example, on the day this is written one petition seeks
“to have a law imposed whereby companies are not allowed to put false
or ambiguous statements on their products. A law where companies
can only use ‘not tested on animals’ statements if both the
ingredients and the final product are not tested on animals. A law
where companies, as a whole, can only say they do not conduct
animal testing if they themselves do not conduct animal testing and
do not fund testing of their products via other companies and
Superficially reasonable, this petition is directed to
officials in a European Union nation–which already has a much
stronger policy in place for sellers of cosmetic products, the major
category in which products are promoted as “not tested on animals.”
Explains the EU information service Europa, “The Cosmetics
Directive puts an end to animal testing by imposing bans on testing
finished cosmetic products and ingredients on animals, and marketing
finished cosmetic products which have been tested on animals, or
which contain ingredients that have been tested on animals. The
testing ban on finished cosmetic products has applied since September
The testing ban on ingredients or combinations of ingredients
was applied progressively as alternative methods were validated and
adopted, until March 2009, when it took full force, with
exceptions for testing to determine “repeated-dose toxicity,
reproductive toxicity, and toxicokinetics. For these specific
health effects,” says Europa, “the deadline is March 2013,” to
ensure that the Cosmetics Directive remains consistent with REACH,
the consolidated chemical safety regulation that the EU adopted in
2006. REACH requires that all chemical substances be tested to
establish uniform safety standards. In the short run it was expected
to increase animal testing by about 3%. In the long run it is
expected to reduce animal testing by as much as half, by creating a
unified European system for registration, evaluation, authorization
and restriction of chemicals, replacing more than 40 separate
national standards.

Consider the process of justice

A petition of a rather different sort demanded the dismissal
of the Pinal County, Arizona, Animal Care & Control employee who on
November 15, 2010 accidentally euthanized Target, a former
Afghanistan street dog who with two other street dogs attacked a
suicide bomber at the entrance of a U.S. Army barracks, saving many
American lives. The Pinal County employee had not followed the
correct shelter procedures, and was fired within the week. But the
petition objected that before being fired, the unidentified employee
was placed on paid leave, pending internal investigation to
determine who actually made the mistake, and if the safeguards to
prevent accidental killings were adequate.
In effect, the petition objected that the employee received
fair treatment, in accord with standard union contracts and civil
service procedures. The petitioners overlooked that the very
provisions that kept this employee on the Pinal County payroll for an
extra couple of days are those that protect workers from retaliatory
firings if they point out problems–for instance, that errors are
being made in euthanasia procedures, or that animals are being
Yet another online petition circulating on this day targeted
the American SPCA–which is almost a no-kill organization–for the
use of standardized temperament tests by shelters all over the U.S.
to determine which dogs are to be euthanized as dangerous.
The advent of standardized temperament testing in place of
staff judgement calls about dog behavior has coincided with a drop of
about 20% in the numbers of pit bull terriers who are killed at
shelters each year, from about a million to about 800,000. But the
introduction of standardized temperament testing has also coincided
with a steep rise in the numbers of people who are killed or
disfigured by shelter dogs–more in both 2009 and 2010 than in the
entire span from 1980 through 1999. The ASPCA may share both the
credit and the blame, as a pioneer in the development of
standardized temperament testing, but is scarcely responsible, as
the petition asserted, for thousands of euthanasias of dogs who fail
the tests.
The most common form of inappropriate petition online demands
that prosecutors or judges immediately bring charges against a
suspect who is accused of a heinous offense against animals, convict
the suspect, and deliver a stiff sentence for the crime.
These are all reasonable hopes, but petitioners should be
aware that when charges are not promptly filed against suspects in
violent crimes, including crimes against animals, the usual problem
is evidentiary. For example, evidence may have been obtained
without a warrant, a witness cannot be located or is unreliable,
forensic evidence takes time to process, or in one recent case, the
legal identity of the suspect required several weeks to establish.
Usually the suspect is held on bail for lesser charges, pending
arraignment on the more serious charges, which must be filed within
a reasonable time. If there is reason to believe that a prosecution
is being neglected or a case is being covered up, petitioning for
action may be in order, but effort should be made first to ensure
that the prosecutor is not merely trying to be certain of winning a
conviction when the case does go to court.
Petitioning a judge to convict a suspect is never
appropriate–as several judges have pointed out in recent years,
dismissing cases or recusing themselves because they have been
subjected to electronic bombardment from activists who are in effect
asking them to try the suspects based on public opinion, rather than
on the evidence.
Public opinion may be considered in the sentencing phase of a
case, after a suspect is convicted. Several states specifically
provide for public opinion to be introduced in court during
sentencing for felonies. Since there is usually an interlude of
several days or weeks between conviction and sentencing, there is
opportunity for appropriate online petitioning in response to a
cruelty case, but it is important to correctly word and direct this
type of testimony, so that it can be considered by the court. Some
courts offer guidelines for how to do this.
Inappropriate online petitioning usually just wastes
everyone’s time, albeit in small increments, but at worst can
result in losing a case or an issue.
Conversely, online petitioning aimed at specific local
issues, when done in an accountable manner by authentic constituents
of the power holders, has huge potential for helping to
re-democratize politics, amplify individual activist voices, and
build strong community animal advocacy institutions.

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