Science: Second site A virtually useless protest

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The Independent Culture
NOW that they have the Internet, the hobo life is over for jokes and gossip. In the old days, when somebody devised a wisecrack about a celebrity or an event of the day, it would spread throughout the country by hitching lifts and hopping trains. No doubt the telephone played a part, but the natural habitat of humour and rumour is the street, the workplace and the bar. When broadcasters and newspapers guarded the privacy of the elite, the populace could still spread the word by its own devices. As the abdication crisis loomed in 1936, the playgrounds echoed with what the media would not admit: "Hark the herald angels sing, Mrs Simpson's pinched our King."

The bush telegraph is obsolete. Not only do the media report the affairs of heads of state, or next-in-lines, but the Web can supply us with full documentation. Who needs rumour when you can download every sticky detail of the Starr report from a link obligingly supplied by a search engine? We had to go through chapter and verse to satisfy ourselves that it was more information than we needed.

At least nobody kidded themselves that ploughing through that particular official publication was an act of citizenship. Other on-line facilities play to the vain illusion that you and your mouse can change the world. A website called E - the People describes itself as "America's interactive town hall" and offers access to 140,000 government officials. It specialises in bulk deliveries, to which end it has industrialised the petition. Protesters can select a category, from Agriculture to Youth, using a pop-up menu, or just attach their names to the latest petitions to hit the page. A desktop activist with a spot of programming ability could probably automate the process entirely.

One of the petitions posted on the site is an impassioned account of the oppression inflicted on the women of Afghanistan by the Taliban regime. Since it makes no demands of anybody, its only purpose is to express outrage. For that there is abundant cause; and a statement from Amnesty International confirms that the general situation for women under Taliban rule is broadly as described in the petition - in a word, hellish. But the Taliban can afford to ignore the rest of the world, and is about as likely to be influenced by a petition as it is to run its policy ideas past focus groups.

On the Internet, well-meaning initiatives like these can be worse than useless. I received a copy of the Taliban petition from Zagreb. A few days later, a correspondent on an American-based e-mail discussion list to which I subscribe posted a message inquiring about the reliability of the petition, which was circulating at her university. Another woman replied, to say that a friend of hers had e-mailed the text's author to ask what its purpose was, since there was no indication of where it would eventually be sent. Back had come an error message, stating that the e-mail address had been disabled, and giving several Web addresses for further information.

From one of these addresses, on a site called HoaxKill, it becomes clear that the inquirer had been spared the mother of all error messages. "Please read this message carefully, especially the next two sentences," the message began. "Do not reply to this e-mail. Do not forward this e-mail to anyone else." Hundreds of thousands of people had returned copies of the petition, it said, thanks to "a person who was totally unprepared for the inevitable consequences of telling 1,000 people to tell 50 of their friends to tell 50 of their friends to send her e-mail". It concludes with a warning that propagating chain letters is forbidden by most Internet service providers.

As Barbara Mikkelson of the Urban Legends site points out, nobody pays any attention to electronic petitions because they are so easy to fake electronically. "Non-virtual" protest costs time and money, and that is the point. As always, you get what you pay for.

Visit www.poptel.org.uk/secondsite for links to pages mentioned or contact Marek Kohn on secondsite@poptel.com

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