time for clear thinking about petition sites and dot-org spams

petition sites fundraising hypocrisy

Be careful. You don’t know where that petition’s been.

When unsubscribing from a petition site, please include a link to this article. But first, of course, read the article, and you’ll see why you’ll want to unsubscribe.

It seemed like a great idea at the time.  

I first saw the online petition arise in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Back then, President Bush had 90% approval rating and very, very few voices questioned the new military interventions and assaults on civil rights. In this environment, a friend of mine sent me a link to an email list that, for once, actually seemed to be having an independent, intelligent conversation about the new post-9/11 realities. And on the eve of our invasion of Iraq, when neither the mainstream media or the vast majority of politicians in either party were asking the most basic question of, “Why Iraq? Why now?” this fledgling mailing list, which later became MoveOn.org, became a leader in the fight against a new war in Iraq and a new force to contend with on the political scene. One which, for at least a brief period of time, gave a powerful voice to independent thinkers.

Ah, for the good old days…

Now, my email inbox is flooded with between fifty and a hundred emails per day asking me to sign this or that petition, and I’m getting fund-raising appeals from members of the U.S. Congress in places like New Hampshire, Ohio and Kansas, and Oregon.  I live in Wisconsin.

How did this happen?

To start, one negative consequence of good ideas is that everybody and their mother wants to get on board.  MoveOn.org begat imitators. And somehow, I ended up on more mailing lists, which would then increase the number of emails I got.

In a fit of frustration about two years ago, I decided to unsubscribe from all petition sites except for three. Amusingly, one site I was unsubscribing from bounced me to a page with an image of the stereotype of a “fat cat banker” sweating profusely but smiling in relief over the fact I was unsubscribing. Nice try, Mr. Dot-Org Propagandist, but a social justice organization has NO business reinforcing stereotypes. It only doubled my resolve to unsubscribe.

But, well, three lists turned into six turned into twelve, and…well you know the rest.

Another petition site that started out as a good idea was Change.org. The idea was simple–anyone could start their own online petition. Except within the past year I noticed more and more “petitions” that were not petitions at all. They were fund-raising appeals disguised as petitions. I was sure that many people who scanned the page clicked the petition not realizing that it wasn’t a petition and that they were–usually unknowingly, I believe–being added to a fund-raising mailing list. I reported two organizations engaging in such practices to Change.org over my believe that they were violating Change.org’s “Terms of Service.” Change.org emailed me back telling me they didn’t see these fund-raising efforts as a problem.

I see it as a huge problem. I was in the business of fund-raising for over a decade, and raised well over a million dollars during my career. So I know what I’m talking about when I criticize the fund-raising industry. Yes, it’s an industry. And if there’s anything I’ve learned from over a decade in “the industry,” it’s this:

Money changes the message.

If the goal becomes raising money, then the message will be spun so the the need will *always* be great, the situation will *always* be dire, and the wolves will *always* be howling at your door and ready to snatch away your precious little chihuahua if you don’t set up barricades.

Of course the situation of our world is, in fact, dire. We as a human race have done so much to put ourselves on the eve of destruction that radical changes are necessary. It’s just that when education is accompanied by a fund-raising appeal, you have to realize that there is a spin to the message.

But of course, when it comes to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, no one can outdo the Democratic Party. Once they got their inky blue hands involved, nothing could wash out the stains.

I began to notice that after signing some of my petitions, I would see a page from the political action committee ActBlue asking me if I wanted to donate.  I always said no, of course. But this apparently did not keep my email address from being passed to other causes. Or politicians.  

No less than a dozen times in the past week, I’ve gotten email from politicians asking me for my financial support. They would tell some dire story of how Big Business or the Tea Party was launching a new set of attack ads, or doing something else that would make my donating to their campaign urgent.

Except there was one problem. I’d never freaking heard of these politicians. None of them were in my state.

So with each one, when they asked me why I wanted to unsubscribe, I’d say “I don’t live in your district.” After a bunch more unknowns emailed me for moulah, my reply became a little bit more tart. (i.e. “I never f***ing heard of you!”) But I had neither the space or energy to explain fully my frustrations with the list-sharing and the ways that simple petitions had now become fishhooks sucking people into this big online money machine.

And then an idea came to me.

When asked why I’m unsubscribing, I could simply post the link to this page and that would tell them what they needed to know.  

And if I could do it, then others could, too. Many others.

Why not make this a movement? Not an anti-petition movement. Not an Alice’s-Restaurant-Anti-Massacree-Movement.

No, I’m calling for an Inbox Integrity Movement directed at dot-orgs who need to have their thirst for money stop trumping common sense.

At this point, I am unsubscribing from all email lists and petition lists that don’t clearly and explicitly say that they won’t share my name with anyone outside their organization. And I’m including the link to this article when I do so. You should do the same.

Such privacy practices should also clearly outline how the user will be notified if the organization decides to renege on its commitment not to share our email addresses with third parties. I’ve also noticed that many orgs say that they will share my information with “affiliates,” and giving as an example, a company that would help process their donation. The problem is, they don’t exclude other definitions of “affiliate,” thereby leaving a loophole big enough to encircle the entire Washington DC Beltway. So if they use vague language like that, out they go, too.

Some people might accuse me of being a closet Republican, and that I want to cut off fund-raising for progressives at the knees. Not at all. I only want to support the tiny minority of them that respect my privacy.

I’m certain that grassroots conservatives are active in online petitions with different organizations and that the Republican Party is doing what they can to co-opt these efforts and run them themselves. I suspect that many self-described conservatives or Tea Partiers share my frustrations with those conservative orgs, too. Really, it doesn’t matter what political stripe people are–anyone who is sick of having their mailbox flooded with political spam should unsubscribe and use the link to this article to justify why. The unusual coalitions between liberals and conservatives in opposing NSA eavesdropping shows us in no uncertain terms that privacy is a non-partisan issue. No one is my enemy if we can find common ground.

I want to see political and social change. We are in dire need of it. But let’s wake up–one hundred emails per day in each of our inboxes does not constitute political change. Unless you think that political change includes the jingling of change in the pockets of inside-the-Beltway organizations.

This blend of petition-signing, fund-raising and co-optation by the major political parties is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and it’s got to stop.

Who’s with me?