When Armchair Activism Backfires

Scrolling down the computer screen, the petition unfurls like pages in a well-worn passport. Montreal. Macau. Switzerland. Sweden. Santa Barbara, Calif. and Santiago, Chile. The petitioners come from locations exotic and domestic, urban and pastoral. United by a common cause, these untold scores of armchair activists are putting their names to an e-mail appeal for peace and forwarding it to the United Nations.

There's just one problem. The United Nations has nothing to do with it.

"We have no idea how the petitions came to be directed at our office. We of course had nothing at all to do with their origination," said Catherine O'Neill, director of the U.N. Information Center in Washington.

In recent months, the United Nations has been besieged by an enduring e-mail hoax that encourages readers to endorse a statement against U.S. military action in Iraq and to pass it along to friends. The petition claims that "the UN is gathering [the] signatures to avoid a tragic world event."

In playing to this atmosphere of anxiety and offering a convenient way to voice concern the petition hints at what may be a new era of cyberspace activism. Technology long ago changed the way we communicate. Now, it may be changing the way we agitate.

For its part, the United Nations staunchly disavows any involvement with the petition, encouraging citizens to instead contact their own governments regarding matters of war and peace.

Yet the appeals continue to roll in, crisscrossing borders in a variety of languages before washing up in diplomatic inboxes like unwelcome Internet detritus. Some versions advise petitioners to forward copies to a U.N. Information Center e-mail address; others, to a Public Inquiries department at U.N. headquarters in New York City. Either way, the grassroots crusade is befuddling bureaucrats.

"I would say we have been receiving thousands," said Dawn Johnston-Britton, acting chief of the Public Inquiries Unit. "In fact, we have been receiving so many that it crashed our email address and we have since had to create a second email account."

"Very often when they come in, we now just dump them," said Johnston-Britton. "Initially, we would scroll through them, but as they went from hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands, it's not something we can respond to."

People who track Internet myths are calling this one of the more prolific chain letter hoaxes in history.

"It's perfectly possible that it's exceeded a million people by now," said David Emery, a San Francisco-based editor who covers electronic urban legends for about.com. "One reason is that it's been around for a while."

The current plea for a peaceful resolution in Iraq represents just the latest strain in a long-running hoax that dates back to the jittery days following Sept. 11. At that time, a nearly identical appeal -- though less prolific -- petitioned an "indignant" America to exercise restraint in any "reprisals against the Islamic world." A year and a half later, the petition haunts recipients with the specter of a "third world war."

"This one is sort of like an all-purpose antiwar petition," said David P. Mikkelson, editor of snopes.com, the popular website that debunks urban legends. "It started in one form after the Sept. 11 attacks as a sort of ambiguous way of preventing war from breaking out everywhere. It morphed into a petition against Iraq and if the U.S. was threatening to invade some third country it would probably change again."

The sheer magnitude of petitions pouring in speaks to a burgeoning peace movement. It's difficult to calculate the exact number of petitioners -- partly because the United Nations isn't keeping score. Even if someone were to try and tally up all the signatures, it would require filtering out hundreds of duplicate names.

"That's why e-mail petitions are just doomed to failure," said Emery. "People are discovering better ways to petition on the Internet -- we're just looking at one of the worst ways to do it."

Tracking down the originator of the petition comes with similarly hopeless odds.

"From a practical standpoint, it's impossible," said Bruce P. Burrell, a computer consultant and team leader of the University of Michigan Virus Busters. "This is like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle; if you don't have one piece, then you don't have a whole layer."

Suzanne Dathe of Grenoble, France, happens to be the first name on nearly every petition, but when contacted by phone, she said she didn't start the movement. According to Dathe, she signed a petition in support of women's rights under Taliban rule four years ago. Her name and others' have been co-opted for this appeal, which has led to a number of people contacting Dathe in support of her presumed "leadership."

"The funniest thing is that I did not know what was going on," she said. "But if people ask me to be the first in the movement, I will support it. I'm against the war in Iraq, but I didn't sign the petition."

Real or fake, its explosive popularity confirms the rise of Internet advocacy, where protest comes couched in convenience. Forwarding a chain letter petition to an entire address book takes just seconds. In hours, the message can soar across the Internet and spread around the world.

"Certainly in terms of bulk, you can hit a lot of people," said Burrell. "If you think about it, standing on a soapbox at a street corner, you have a limited reach."

Yet a message so easily reproduced and covering so much virtual territory could be devalued as a political signifier.

"It's armchair activism," said Mikkelson. "You don't have to spend any personal time or effort or money to bring about the changes you want. It would have been interesting in the Vietnam War era, if instead of campus protests or riots, people just passed emails around."

For that reason, peace activists have mixed feelings about such petitions. On one hand, convenience nurtures maximum participation, drumming up easily achieved support from halfhearted peaceniks. On the other hand, it could breed complacency. And, ultimately, if the petition isn't even "real," the effort remains futile.

Some activists trying to head off that wasted political capital before it gets discarded at the United Nations find themselves in the ironic position of battling the petition while supporting its aims. Joshua Koenig, 23, an Internet developer in Brooklyn, has been campaigning to divert the energy behind this U.N. petition into more productive means. On message boards, he implores: "It's important to spread the word that this petition is not for real. Not only does it create more junk email (which we all dislike), but it makes people feel that they have accomplished something when in fact they haven't, detracting from their energy to take meaningful action."

"It's one of those things people should be educated about," said Koenig. "I believe with this one people believe the cause is very worthy and they click the mouse and forward it to all their friends and they feel like they've done something. There's a sense like, 'Oh, I don't have to go to the rally or whatever.'"

"In reality, there's a lot of people who care about what's going on, they're just not going to go hold up a sign in the street," he said.

Given the near-ubiquity of the petition right now -- and the thunderous drumbeat of war coming from within the Bush Administration -- the efforts of people like Koenig may ultimately be in vain.

"A lot of people try to squelch these things by writing to their friends and so on, but there are always new people willing to bite," said Emery.

So the U.N. yarn ambles on, unraveling in inboxes across the Internet. A resolution in Iraq, be it war or peace, may not even mean the end of it. "Hoaxes never die," said Burrell. "They live a very long time, and instead of dying, they evolve."

Michael Serazio is a freelance writer based in New York City. In May, he will graduate from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

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