The Real Cynicism Behind E-Petitions

I’ve already made my feelings about e-petitions clear and don’t wish to repeat my complaints but, dear God, I feel like I’m drowning in the fucking things. Increasingly it seems like the first response to any perceived injustice in the world is to rush to the computer and create an e-petition. The sad thing is that I haven’t always been so averse to them – no-one would have to convince me that they could play a part in engaged activism. Yet I think the way they are deployed is often counter-productive, even harmful. At the core of this harm is a profound and lazy arrogance. It’s completely absurd that any of us could sit at our computers and dot around the world, from e-petition to e-petition, and feel that we are ‘making a difference’. It’s even more ridiculous that we would feel that we had a right to do this. It would be charitable to say that the way e-petitions are wheeled out against non-Western countries carries an implicit message that they are barbaric and inhumane – because it often seems that this is the explicit intent. Those countries are bad; they do bad things; we enlightened Westerners need to save the poor people of those countries. Sign the petition! Read the paragraph of explanatory text and share, share, share! Don’t make the slightest effort to actually learn and think about what’s happening. Don’t engage with anyone within the countries we’re petitioning. Don’t consider for a second the West’s brutal and bloody history in almost all of these countries. Don’t dwell on the fact that our countries have been and continue to be built on the backs of the ‘developing world’ or that ‘aid’ could be more accurately called ‘reparations’ if it didn’t come with so many strings attached. Don’t get angry about the fact that our own governments and businesses continue to support and arm brutal regimes provided they are amenable to ‘our’ interests. And don’t for a second display the slightest self-awareness and focus on the shit our own governments do in our own countries. Instead, let’s tell ourselves we live in a comic book world of clear good and clear evil, where the good guys can fix things by entering their e-mail addresses.

Whenever I complain about e-petitions the response is predictable: “well what do you do about it?” As if signing a fucking e-petition is an unquestionable good and thinking that maybe we should shut the hell up, listen and learn is enabling tyranny. No, the truly fucked up position is one where we don’t hold our own governments, corporations and NGOs to account but instead unthinkingly buy into the notion that we are the saviours of a world that is otherwise populated by savages who don’t speak our language and more often than not don’t share our skin colour. The real arrogance is not in questioning the efficacy of a petition against the government of Uganda or Russia but in believing that these countries are so slack-jawed that they would be dictated to by 200,000 Westerners who’ve read a couple of articles in-between posting pop videos and memes.

There is a deep sense here that the people of these countries are lesser and beholden to superior Westerners, not only in terms of their politics but also with regards to their activism. The words of Ugandan activists like Sexual Minorities Uganda, led by Frank Mugisha, aren’t ringing around the world and there isn’t a clamour to support them. Instead everyone is sharing the umpteenth petition from, an American organisation which has already demonstrated that it has a shaky understanding of what’s happening at best while turning the situation into a fundraising opportunity. As you’ll see from that link, it’s not exactly the most transparent organisation when it comes to how it spends its money, much of which comes from donations. AllOut’s own website notes that:

All Out is a combined effort of two organizations – Purpose Action, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit advocacy organization focused on changing policy, and Purpose Foundation, a related 501(c)(3) charitable organization focused on education and changing culture.

Purpose Action had revenue of $1.78 million in 2012 and spent $334,657 campaigning for gay marriage in America and on engaging ‘more than 1,000,000 people globally on LGBT equality issues’. The latter presumably means…e-petitions. There is nothing about grants to organisations within countries like Uganda, Russia or Cameroon which give AllOut its most high-profile campaigns. It spent over $200,000 on ‘campaigner fees and expenses’ and ‘website and technology’ costs, and over $120,000 on the salary of its President.

Then there is Purpose Foundation which had revenue of over $1,000,000 and spent $1.2 million. Over $500,000 of this was on salaries and, again, ‘campaigner fees and expenses’ and ‘website and technology’ claim over $300,000.

Where things get really interesting is with the existence of a third organisation – Purpose Campaigns LLC. This is a consultancy firm which is FOR-PROFIT. It claims credit for AllOut, as well as Avaaz, on its website, where it also lists clear links with the World Economic Forum renowned for its Davos meetings of the world elite. Fascinatingly, both Purpose Action and Purpose Foundation employed Purpose Campaigns for ‘contracted services’ of over $120,000 (that I can see). All three organisations may share board members but don’t fret – apparently these people ‘did not participate’ in the decisions to hire themselves. Phew!

Even more fascinatingly, Purpose Campaigns were paid almost $400,000 by American billionaire conservative Pete Peterson to scaremonger about the American deficit and fuel his interests in dismantling Medicaid and other ‘safety net’ programmes. As that last link surmises, they appear to have been hired precisely because their progressive image made them a Trojan horse for the message – and that public image relies overwhelmingly on sites like Avaaz and AllOut.

It’s clear, then, that the people behind these sites not only have a massive material interest in pushing them but do almost nothing substantial in order to support the activists around the world whom they raise funds on the back of. If the neo-imperialistic overtones of these e-petitions weren’t clear before, they certainly are now. It should also be clear that e-petitions aren’t necessarily ‘doing something’. They aren’t necessarily useful. They aren’t necessarily informative or educational. They can be the cynical tools of clever people who get rich from them. Next time you read about something in some far-off country which shocks you, don’t click on the inevitable e-petition link. Go do some reading of your own and, if you truly want to help, devote time to educating yourself about the situation and what helping really means.

I’m E-Petitioned Out

There is now barely a day that goes by without me receiving at least one e-mail inviting me to sign a petition about some issue or another. From the government’s e-petitions to organisations like 38 Degrees and Avaaz and campaigns such as If, we are bombarded with demands to join the movement, pledge to the cause, make the change. They spread quickly and easily across Facebook and Twitter, frequently with the imploring assertion that taking 30 seconds from your life can make a real difference to an issue. I’ve certainly shared them myself – and it’s because of this that I can understand the appeal. It feels more meaningful to share them than to post ironic Youtube videos of American reality shows or pictures of cats. Yet it increasingly seems that the ubiquity of e-petitions is doing more harm than good.

I’ve written before about ‘clicktivism’ and the danger of facile engagement via the internet. There are unfortunately many people who don’t bother to question something if it chimes with and/or suits their own sense of identity. This is nowhere more obvious than in the shallow memes which I wrote about in those two blogs but I think this is also instructive regarding the relationship many have with e-petitions. No matter how well meaning an organisation (or movement) is, no matter how much information they make available, there are going to be a lot of people who sign a petition because they think it sounds ‘right’ and not because they’ve actually bothered to investigate the issue at hand. The startling plethora of petitions which have repeatedly sprung up in the past 18 months or so regarding gay rights in Uganda is a good example. Clearly it was a real issue, yet it was also obvious from much of the rhetoric that many had engaged no further than the few sentences which tended to accompany the petitions. After all, some of the most prominent petition sites had previously claimed to have stopped the bill. Many were unaware that voices inside Uganda and beyond urged extreme caution with regards to public statements and petitions and worried about the clamour to end Western aid to one of the poorest countries in the world. The links between American evangelicals and Ugandan homophobia remained largely unknown, as did Uganda’s history of British colonial rule and Western support for brutal dictators such as Idi Amin when it suited (and indeed current American involvement). The numerous voices arguing that the bill was a diversion tactic (supported by Wikileaks) went almost unheard. Instead there was frequently the sense that people just believed Uganda to be an innately broken, backward country which, when combined with the belief that Westerners spending 10 seconds entering their e-mail address can meaningfully dictate policy there, results in a dangerous, Orientalist fantasy. 

The Uganda Bill petitions were unavoidable for a couple of weeks, much like the even bigger Kony campaign (also Uganda-related) earlier in the year. The Bill, like Kony, is still around – as are the issues of poverty, mortality, gender inequality and more which Uganda faces. Yet the e-petitions have moved on and so our attention has too. It’s difficult, of course, for a privileged white Brit sitting at a laptop to seriously begin to understand some of these issues. In this regard the Uganda Bill was a perfect storm for e-petitions, pushing buttons of identity politics and barbaric African nations without demanding any wider attempts at contextualisation or comprehension, or any thought further than ‘this is bad, my signing this is good’. We should ask ourselves why it feels so instinctively right – why we think ‘well it’s better than doing nothing’ rather than asking ourselves if we truly care and what that would really involve. We would rather have the quick philanthropic buzz of signing it, sharing it and then clicking onto the next Facebook post. It creates the sense of doing something without really doing much of anything.

Petitions are one tool amongst many and they have a place yet their growth seems largely connected to the narcissism and atomisation of social media rather than any increased social awareness or empathy. The new If campaign tackles the enormous and complex problem of world hunger, declaring that joining the campaign can be the “beginning of the end” of the problem. Yet how many people signing up to it will spend any time investigating this issue? More than that, how many will investigate it beyond the uncontroversial platitudes pushed by the supportive celebrities? It’s a campaign which already has the support of the Prime Minister while his government simultaneously exacerbates the problem. This great War on Want statement looks at just a few of the problems with the campaign (which I won’t repeat) but one of its greatest dangers is its idea that we in the West can ‘solve’ world hunger simply by signing petitions to our leaders. We’ve seen time and time again that this doesn’t work. Our leaders rely on the fact that we have a flimsy involvement which will either drift off entirely or be satisfied with some positive sounding announcements (and anyone who doesn’t already know that these will definitely come is naive in the extreme). The If campaign is already guaranteed to be a success on its own terms. In terms of confronting the ‘market forces’, the ‘economic development policies’, the ‘trade liberalisation’, the history of colonialism and exploitation, the continuing Western greed regarding wealth, resources and energy to name but a few major aspects of the capitalist infrastructure, it will be a dismal failure, just as Make Poverty History (which I was an enthusiastic supporter of) ultimately was before it. 

This isn’t an argument in favour of doing nothing, which I’m sure is how some would (will) present it. However it’s most definitely not the case that ‘doing something’ is always better than doing nothing. Sometimes doing ‘something’ is not only completely ineffectual, it’s harmful. It releases the pressure, convincing everyone that something is being done, that everything is fine and all we need is some well-intentioned tinkering to make things better. It pushes the idea that our Western democracies are fundamentally benign and just need to be pushed in the right direction, whether it be ‘saving the NHS’ or ‘saving gay people in Uganda’. If we truly care about these things we need to face the fact that we have a responsibility to engage, to educate ourselves about them, to think about them for more than 30 seconds. We need to ask ourselves why we are so quick to put our faith in petitions and to share them so widely. We need to consider the consequences of  this and of our wider inaction which it arguably facilitates. I’m e-petitioned out.