How to make a completely useless online environmental petition in 5 easy steps

Sites like Care2 and Causes, for better or for worse, make it easier than ever to write and distribute petitions

Sites like Care2 and Causes, for better or for worse, make it easier than ever to write petitions

Online petitions have become a popular tool of the conservation movement. A well-written petition can be an important tool for helping to shape policy, particularly when used as part of a larger and well-organized lobbying and advocacy campaign. Many petitions, however, are so badly written as to be ineffective or even counterproductive when it comes to influencing real policy change. Even worse, they falsely perpetuate the idea that an activist has “done something” about the problem, which may prevent them from participating in a process that could result in real change.

In case you want to join the numerous  activists who are filling my Facebook news feed and e-mail inbox with useless petitions, here is an easy 5 step guide for you to to follow, using examples from some real petitions I’ve been asked to sign.

A note on terminology: Petitions typically contain a few basic elements, which I term here “the problem”, “the target”, and “the solution”. The problem briefly describes the undesirable situation that the petition hopes to remedy. The target is who the petition is directed at. The solution is what should be done about the problem.

1) Make up a problem entirely, or change key details about it (i.e. “lie”) . Obviously, if a problem isn’t actually happening (or isn’t happening as you describe it) it can’t really be solved, and any effort spent signing or promoting that petition is a complete waste of time.

Shortly after I became involved in online science and conservation communication, a petition to “stop fishermen from using live dogs as shark bait” was circulating around Facebook. This sounds horrible, and if it is happening, it should be stopped. However, as a thorough Snopes.com factcheck reveals, it wasn’t really happening. A few fishermen were illegally using dead dogs (that had  been hit by cars) as bait, and had been arrested and prosecuted for this already by the time the petition started circulating. There was no epidemic of fishermen rounding up live dogs. There was no problem to solve, rendering the petition useless at solving the problem.

Some particularly bizarre petitions seem to focus on extremely specific events that took place in the past rather than ongoing issues. For example, one petition that numerous people asked me to sign reads:

“To: American Museum of Agriculture in Lubbock, Texas

“Dear American Museum of Agriculture Director and Board members,
we the undersigned are extremely disturbed that your museum recently purchased two old mules from a local horse and mule trader and then euthanized them for a “realistic” farm display.
One mule was apparently 28 years old and the other was 32.
The whole issue is extremely saddening and the Board of Directors need to be held accountable for this act of Animal cruelty.
Sincerely …”

Ok… two mules were killed for a museum display and some people are unhappy about it. What should be done? The mules can’t be un-killed. There’s hardly an epidemic of farm animals being killed for museum displays. What exactly is the purpose of this petition?
Additionally, it should go without saying that your petitions shouldn’t involve making stuff up. My list of “13 things that are wrong about sharks that shark conservation advocates should stop saying in 2013” seem to show up pretty regularly in shark conservation petitions. As I said on twitter in response to this petition, when you say “sharks are essential to our survival”, I hear “I am a crazy person who doesn’t understand science”.

2) Fill your petition with typos and grammatical mistakes so it looks like it was written by a child. The governmental agencies that make environmental policy are tasked with balancing the needs of multiple, often competing stakeholders. Their decisions can conceivably result in a species going extinct, or an entire fishing community going out of business. In short, they have a very serious job to do, and to be taken seriously, professionalism is key.  A great way to get them to ignore what you have to say completely is not to bother to spell-check your petition. There are countless examples of petitions that are so poorly written that I can’t even tell what they’re trying to say, but in terms of grammar, typos, and logic, this is among the worst I’ve seen:

Shark Fin Soup is often used as a natural medicine and is the sole cause for Shark Finning as it can be sold at a very expensive price which means that the Shark Finning industry could potentially be a multi-billion dollar one, however, although many often claim that Shark Fin Soup d is venficial for your health it has little proven nutriotional value.” (source)

Obviously, if a petition actually IS written by a child (for a school project or something), it’s different. Additionally, some benefit of the doubt exists for non-native speakers of the language that the petition is written.  However, it isn’t hard to use spell-check or to ask a native speaker to look over something for you to make sure it makes sense.

3) Use a group or individual who can’t possibly help as your target. In many countries, environmental policymaking is a participatory process. If an appropriately-worded petition is directed at the right person, it can help to sway a decision. However, petitions that aren’t directed at people who can actually help are completely useless. For example, lots of shark conservation petitions are directed at “The Chinese Government” (example). As Henry Kissinger famously asked, “Who do I call if I want to speak to ‘Europe’ ?” Additionally, a petition circulating earlier this week asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and  CITES to stop shark finning, and neither group has any authority (none whatsoever) over fishing methods.

4)Don’t offer a specific solution to the problem. A great way to ensure that you petition is completely ineffective is to not propose a solution to the problem at all.  Telling the target that you’re unhappy with the status quo without suggesting a way to fix is  putting the onus on them to come up with a solution. If they’re willing to do that at all, it may not be a solution you like.

5) Offer a preposterous solution. While many petitions are unlikely to be successful (whaling and seal clubbing have continued despite decades of petitions and other activism), the best examples of preposterous solutions come not from petitions themselves, but from the messages included by those who sign them. In a recent blog post, I explained the issues behind the proposed European Union shark finning ban, and told readers how they could help get the ban passed. Numerous readers provided their own solution to the problem in the comment thread, including suggestions that the whole world go vegan, that everyone should stop mistreating all animals everywhere, and that all fishing be stopped. Yup, those things are totally going to happen because you commented on a blog.

Conclusions: What can we do about useless petitions? If, for some reason, you want to make a petition that can actually help, just do the opposite of what I’ve suggested here. I’m usually happy to sign and to promote a well-worded petition that has the potential to actually help solve an important environmental problem, and I’m always happy to take a look at a petition and tell you if there’s anything wrong with it.

These well-worded petitions that actually could help tend to have something in common- they’re almost all written by established, respected scientific or conservation organizations rather than individual  and unaffiliated “activists”. If you are a passionate and knowledgeable individual activist, I strongly recommend that before writing a petition, first check if an established, respected scientific or conservation organization already has a petition about that topic. If they do, think about what your petition hopes to gain that wouldn’t be gained by the existing petition, and consider helping to share theirs rather than writing your own.

If, on the other hand, you are a passionate activist that doesn’t know that much about the topic at hand, you probably shouldn’t be writing petitions (or writing website FAQs or blog posts, or taking interviews with the media, or teaching students or people in the community). If you care a lot of about something but don’t know very much about it, it doesn’t make you a bad person, and it doesn’t mean that you can’t help fix the problem, but it should automatically preclude you from being a public leader in that movement.

    • Thank you David for this excellent advice! I do however wish you would have titled your article “How to make a completely USEFUL online environmental petition in 5 easy steps” as this wording would be far more encouraging. As a long time activist I find that APATHY is much more detrimental to the cause of helping to create a better world than poorly constructed petitions and do usually sign most that I receive as I am so elated that the person cared enough to DO SOMETHING!

    • Why is considered valuable to “do something” if what you’re doing has absolutely no impact of any kind? Why don’t you instead contact an NGO that needs help and “do something” that can help?

    • It is a problem when dealing with change to get people to care. Preaching to the choir is not enough to enact change. For example if only three people cared about climate change than what government would listen to try and change their policies. That’s why petitions at least bring up the issue to people who know nothing about it. However a petition that is useless is the equivalent of someone complaining to everyone they know about a problem but just grumbling. Sure they’re doing something – grumbling – but is that going to fix the issue? Obviously not. A petition that is ineffective, as in your example David Shiffman that you just state you’re unhappy with the status quo is exactly that: You grumble in a petition, but nothing happens, especially since corporations don’t care about you in particular. My question then is, how do we get people to care while still being effective? If the only people who made petitions were those who could and would send an effective petition, how many people would know of the issue to make a decision to care? Signing an ineffective petition is useless, but maybe there is something positive just in receiving the petition.

    • @ Tamara
      While not always posible due to apathy, disinterest or what not, getting people to care often times requires actually taking them by the hand and showing them the problem in person when possible. If you’re able to do that you can see the change in perception in folks and when that happens you have a better chance of being effective. At least that what I experience when I am doing my job at the Gulf, I’m fortunate to be in a position to do that. Not everyone is but that still doesn’t stop someone from not only preaching to the choir but being proactive, getting off their computer chair and doing a beach clean up. For instance… Lot’s of ways to get involved and get others concerned. I like the comment denstormer made below.

  1. Sometimes, pointing out the obvious is conducive to reawakening those somewhat overcome with blind anger over preposterous or outdated action/situations. Thanks for the punch of reality!!

  2. thank you, David. I sign many petitions simply because of their well-meaning message. However, I often wonder how effective the various campaigns are, with no easy means of checking. Your guide helps discern, and will help with my own activism, cheers!

  3. As my inbox is increasingly flooded with invitations to sign petitions, I thank the author for his clarity and simple, yet useful advice. I do read petitions before I sign them of course and try to be selective, but often wonder if they are useful. Some certainly are, as the results later show, but many are of pretty dubious quality in terms of content (substance), style, grammar and spelling. I’m a bit more tolerant of that when I know the author of a petition is not a native English speaker, though I think they might seek someone to edit the text for them. And yes, a bit more constructive realism is in order…

  4. Yes, I am grateful for this, but I would imagine it will continue. You are right, one does feel good after signing 10 petitions a day on average! But I feel a bit stupid now. I did always wonder if they did any good, and now I’m starting to doubt even the “kosher” ones.

  5. Hmmm. It’s interesting how some folks just don’t like the idea of doing the job right in the first place. For instance, the likes and dislikes this article has garnered. On reading this and the 4 responses following, I have to wonder why anyone would dislike the responses to this article as they seem to agree with the statement. If my math is correct, so far I see 6 likes and 5 dislikes at this point. I don’t get it. What’s not to like? David is correct. Do a good job, do it right the first time and try to not look like an idiot when you present something in public. Usually by applying the first two. Remember! A closed mouth collects no foot!

    • I think the reason for dislikes is people think if you discourage doing anything than people won’t act at all. I started a site that was supposed to be for all animal memorabilia, but it turned out just to be a petition posting site. I think some people actually left because they got too many petitions and even I begin to see patterns in petitions rehashing the same problem. I’d be happy to post only one petition a year if all the ones I posted were effective.

    • Point taken and I understand your viewpoint but people still will look for outlets to express themselves if they are truly concerned. Bummer your site didn’t work out as planned but you did take action. And you did make a change. So good for you. Now all you have to do is figure out how to make the change work better.

  6. I feel so helpful when I am signing petitions because there are so many causes in the world that need to be addressed and to think that the life or lives of some person or animal is reliant on whether or not the petition is grammatically correct or not is scary but very important obviously, a life is in the balance. Good information to know if I decide to write a petition myself though, which I am not planning any time soon, I would be scared I would not word it right and that life in the balance relying on it would be too great a burden. So I will be way more watchful and read carefully before I sign, thanks for the heads up.

    • Everyone wants to be helpful and it’s a good philosophy to have. I see that every year on the trips I make to the GFNMS and come on, who doesn’t want to be a good and responsible steward? Who doesn’t want to try? The hard part is being effective. Like you say, be watchful, read carefully an apply judiciously.

  7. David, Thank you, but please me my comment on one (important!) detail. You stated that when you hear someone say something like ‘sharks are essential to our survival’ you think they ‘know nothing about science’. David you are mistaken here and (we all) should be better informed. Sharks are particularly essential to our survival on earth and one of our greatest buffers against global warming – WHY?- they are the basic consumers of the fish that feel on phyto-(photosynthetic)-plankton. humans cannot eat these fish. without sharks they overpopulate and over-consume the phytoplankton – which create about 60% of the world’s OXYGEN – out of massive mat’s of carbon dioxide. Without these, global warming speeds up exponentially. – I am a marine biology student, but don’t take my word for it look it up I recommend the documentary SHARKWATER – to everyone!

    • Jaime, the notion that without sharks, there will be no oxygen does indeed come from “Sharkwater”. However, it isn’t true. I recommend that instead of watching documentaries that promote violence against fishermen, you read the scientific literature on the subject.

      We’ve written extensively about this subject on the blog, and I encourage you to check out:

      “13 wrong things about sharks that advocates should stop saying in 2013” (#12) http://www.southernfriedscience.com/?p=14034

      “Sharks Create Oxygen?”
      http://www.southernfriedscience.com/?p=12692

    • HI Jamie. Humans do, indeed, eat fish that eat phytoplankton. For example diatoms are a major part of the diet of tone of the major components of the Peruvian Anchoveta fishery – Engraulis ringens

      (http://fishbase.sinica.edu.tw/TrophicEco/FoodItemsList.php?vstockcode=4&genus=Engraulis&species=ringens).

      Larvae and juvenile stages of of many other human targeted fishes also consume phytoplankton. It’s a point that David makes towards the end of his first step – when writing a petition you need to get the basic science, or even just facts, correct, even if it isn’t the central point of your petition. Nothing makes me dismiss a petition or a campaign more quickly then seeing a grand claim like your “humans cannot eat these fish” and knowing it to be false.

  8. Thank you, I will check out the article you recommended. but, WOW the interpretation of my comment that ‘without sharks there’d be no oxygen’ is a gross exaggeration. Ocean acidification is the greatest threat to phytoplankton, but i’m sure we can agree that a population imbalance of natural predators is indeed a factor. Allso I do advise you watch Sharkwater, because also the statement that it promotes violence against fishermen is misinformed, nothing like that occurs or is promoted in any way in the film what so ever. A more considerate attempt at accurate summation both of quotations and events is needed here. Thank you again for the article link.

  9. In general, Beel agrees with the limitations of online petitions, or even form letter-type petitions. It is really easy to dismiss these out of hand, but if you want to see an example done right go to Save the Tarpon (dot) com. Public action, motivated by an issue, fueled by website, Facebook page, AND an online petition have been really effective. (For the record, Beel has no association with this group.)

  10. (This is my first time commenting on this blog. I acknowledge that I’ve read the comments policy by declaring that my favorite style of barbecue is one with vegan food, such as tofu and soya burgers, and attended by other animal rights activists. Since I work shift work, it would have to take place when I have the whole day off, and not before or after night shift).

    I agree with all the points except for No. 5. There is nothing preposterous about advocating veganism, ending fishing or an end to all animal cruelty, especially if it is in the comments and not in the petition itself. There are a lot of ways in which to effectively work against meat consumption and fishing (especially commercial fishing). One can write to relevant institutions asking for an end to all subsidies towards animal farming and commercial fishing. One can demand the right to vegan meals whilst in hospital, at a school or university cafeteria, in the army, and so on. One can write to companies that manufacture food and nutritional supplements, and retailers that sell them, asking for vegan options. A vegan should not have to offer meat or fish if organizing a meal at home or taking someone to a restaurant. At present, there are less that 1% vegans in the general population, but if we could get that number to reach 10% or so, it would be difficult to ignore veganism. I often make comments such as “we should stop all animal cruelty” (for example, if the petition is against the killing of dogs or the consumption of shark fins by the Chinese) to make it clear that I am not anti-Chinese but that I take part in all kinds of campaigns against the killing of animals. With regards to fishing and hunting, we can ask for an expansion of marine reserves and seasons during which these activities are banned and an increase in the number of species that are protected. Hopefully, that might make at least some people give up fishing and hunting. Not only does a vegan avoid supporting the production of animal products but one is also helping to create a market for cruelty-free products, making them more available and in turn, making it easier for other people to consider veganism. (Before somebody decides to bring up the issue of killing plants, I wish to say that almost all of the foods that I eat do not involve killing the plant and I am in the process of phasing out products with palm oil). I do not support non-abolitionist campaigns such as “humane meat” or “sustainable fishing” A ban on fur-farming goes into effect in Croatia in 2017; Spain has given great apes limited human rights. On the other hand, 30 years and billions of dollars wasted on welfarist campaigns in the United States of America has achieved nothing and some states are even attempting to introduce additional restrictions and penalties for activists.

    I find endless similar petitions to be a waste of time. It is better to promote an existing petition. I find pledges (such as “pledge to take action for animals”) totally useless. Another “favourite” is when somebody pledges to “sign” a petition or “likes” a petition that I posted on Facebook but, when I check the actual petition, it turns out that they did not “sign”. I am much better at collecting signatures on paper, in the street than I am at getting people to “sign” an identical online petition. In the street, I can collect 30-60 signatures per hour, making sure that all the required information is completed and legible, whereas when I leave a link to a petition under a relevant online news article, rarely does more than 1 person “sign” as a result.

    I could have said more but maybe this comment may be too long as it is, so I will leave it at this.

    • Suggesting that the whole world turn vegan in response to a petition about overfishing is the intellectual equivalent of the “why can’t we all just get along” school of foreign policy and national security.

      Additionally, the problem with online petitions isn’t that they’re online vs. signatures on paper, the problem is that they’re so poorly written that they can’t possibly have an impact. A well-written online petition would be more effective than a poorly written signatures-on-paper petition.