Armchair activism chain letters typically come in the form of a makeshift petition or a call to boycott a company or product. They are motivated by e-mail's apparent reach and speed, with the assumption that you can get your message to more people faster through e-mail than through traditional means - which is basically true.
Unfortunately, there is typically more wrong than right with using e-mail for this purpose. Webster's Dictionary defines activism as "a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue." The way e-mail is typically used for activism, however, is usually neither "direct" nor "vigorous." The root of "activism" is "active," and few things are less active than sending and receiving e-mail.
To discuss specifically what is wrong with Armchair Activism, we need to take a close looks at the two main types.
The e-petition is probably one of the worst kinds of e-mail chain letters to evolve. These messages usually tell an emotionally charged (and extremely one-sided) story, then beg you to add your name to the bottom and send it to "everyone you know." Most of us usually do, mostly because the cause is instantly compelling and participation requires little no effort, expense or commitment.
Imagine you are an important official about to make a very controversial decision. You receive a paper petition signed by 5000 people - impressive, huh? Upon close inspection, however, you discover that the petition is written in pencil and all the "signatures" are in the same handwriting. At this point, you would most likely dismiss it as unreliable at best, and a forgery at worst. When you start receiving hundreds of copies of it - identical, except for the last few names - you would probably start ignoring them completely.
Does that example sound a little far-fetched? It isn't. An e-mail petition may as well be written in pencil, since it can be edited by anyone who receives it. Further, since the only way to "sign" is to type your name, all signatures will be, in effect, in the same handwriting. The viral method of forwarding the exact same list of names to multiple people, means that most copies of the petition will vary little from each other, making the thousands of copies generated virtually useless. Plus, the signatures can seldom, if ever, be verified.
BreakTheChain.org recommends against creating, "signing" or forwarding any e-petition, no matter how real it seems or how passionate you are about the cause. To see why, pick any petition you've received via e-mail, and apply the...
Seven Tests of Armchair Activism for Petitions:
- Expiration. Does the letter give a timeline for the collection of signatures or a target number of signatures? E-petitions can linger online for months, even years. My experience shows this to be the case, even if the originator put a target date on it to begin with. Petitions that are allowed to circulate indefinitely are seldom compelling and very often continue to circulate long after any usefulness they may have once had has passed. (For example, the Jamie Bulger petition.)
- Focus. Does the message have a well-defined target and mission statement? Does it clearly spell out what steps or results are desired? Does it solicit and allow signatures only from constituents of the party it's meant to influence? Most e-petitions get you worked up, but make no real statement or demand (For example, the Bonsai Kitten petition), or target an individual who has no authority to make the desired change (for example, the petition to President Bush to reinstate prayer in schools).
- Integrity. Is someone coordinating the petition to make sure it gets to the proper party in the proper format? Most ask you to send them directly to the party whose actions you are trying to influence. This amounts to an "e-mail attack," costs the recipient time and money and does more to hurt the cause than promote it. (For example, the appeal to the United Nations to stop a war against Iraq.)
- Privacy. Is there an alternative method for signing, such as a Web site, phone number or snail-mail address? Does the message explain clearly what will be done with the information it collects and by whom? If you are directed to a Web site to sign, does the site include a privacy statement? Remember that there are absolutely no privacy protections for information sent via e-mail.
- Reliability. Does the message explain clearly who will collect and compile the signatures - and can you trust them? While some petitions actually give you an address to send copies to, most of the creators fail to check with their e-mail provider first and, as a result, their account is usually shut down within a few days. Most e-mail providers prohibit chain letters and petitions in their terms of service. (For example, the petition to stop the Taliban's War Against Women.)
- Sponsorship. Does the petition's author/originator clearly identify himself or herself and give some way to contact him or her. A well-planned political or social cause will usually have a web site or phone number you can contact for more information on the issue and to volunteer to help. Unfortunately, most e-petition creators prefer to hide behind the anonymity of e-mail. (For example, this campaign to stop a non-existent film about Jesus.)
- Validity. Does the petition contain facts and statistics with a cited source? In other words, can the claims be easily backed up or do you have to take them at face value? In many cases, the thing you're trying to stop no longer exists or never existed to begin with. (For example, any of the collection of petitions to keep Instant Messengers free.)
If a petition fails two or more of the above, dismiss it as Armchair Activism.
Boycott chains are similar to e-petitions in that they usually tell an emotionally charged and extremely one-sided story, then beg or shame you into taking action. As with e-petitions, the authors see an easy way to take action on a cause, but overestimate the strength of e-mail as an information tool. Many people, though they have no intention of actually participating in the boycott, will pass the messages on. Another problem is that the sacrifices they ask you to make are usually convenient ones.
Five Tests of Armchair Activism for Boycotts:
- Expiration. Is a time-period or goal clearly defined? A boycott is more effective if its onset is immediate and severe and if it continues without interruption until the desired change is made. Many boycott chain letters "trickle out" to the public and/or circulate aimlessly, reaching some willing participants long after it originated. By then, any real need for them may have passed. (For example, the misplaced outrage over Dr. Pepper's "anti-religious" patriotic can).
- Focus. Does the boycott have a well defined target and mission statement? Does it clearly spell out what steps or results are desired and attempt to influence individuals who have real control over the thing to be changed. Also, does it try to recruit individuals whose participation will have a definite impact on the party to be influenced? (For example the call to boycott a postage stamp commemorating Islamic holidays is spread mostly by and among non-Muslims who would be unlikely to buy the stamp anyway.)
- Integrity. Does the boycott send a real message to its target that you are so serious about a cause that you are willing to suffer an inconvenience to make a point. E-mail boycotts that offer too many exceptions or seem too easy to comply with are seldom effective (for example, the Chinese Tea Party).
- Sponsorship. Is someone organizing the boycott and available to offer information and answer questions along the way? Many boycott chains are written by someone who just wants to get something of his or her chest and often wipes his or her hands clean of the issue after hitting the "send" button.
- Visibility. Is the boycott and target carefully selected to make a clear and prominent statement. To butcher a philosophical question: If an activist chains himself to a tree and nobody is around to see it, is it really a protest?
If the message fails any of these, dismiss it as Armchair Activism.
Browse the collection for more examples of Armchair Activism.