We see them everywhere: petitions to end shark finning, to stop the dolphin slaughter in Japan, to protect the habitat of polar bears from exploratory drilling. With the advent of social media, the armchair activist is not short of causes to rally behind.
On any given day, my news feed on social media juggernaut Facebook is inundated with petition after petition, urging me to save this endangered animal, or stop that atrocity. They are, usually, causes I would morally support, but I can’t remember the last time I even clicked on one of those petitions, much less signed one.
Because let’s face it: given how many thousands of petitions are out there, and how many people care enough to sign them, the world should theoretically be a utopia by now if it made any sort of difference.
There’s one thing I ought to make very clear: I am not opposed to petitions, far from it. But there is a major, crucial difference between petitions that make a change, and those designed to make you feel a bit warm and fuzzy with very little value or substance.
Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of this form of armchair activism is the fact that these petitions can be created by anyone and for anything, with no system in place for fact-checking.
One of the common “facts” we see thrown around a lot in marine conservation is that 100 million sharks are killed every year for their fins. While it is true that shark finning is occurring at a very high and unsustainable rate (not to mention being a barbaric and cruel practice anyway), there is no information to back up this particular claim. The actual estimated number is somewhere between 26 – 73 million, which is still a very high number.
According to the study, the number of sharks caught every year as bycatch or for recreation is probably higher, but attempting to exaggerate this information to a “100 million killed for their fins alone!” is misleading and only serves to discredit the entire movement when the facts begin to surface.
If you search “100 million sharks petition” on Google, you’ll see what I mean. One petition even takes it up a notch, placing the number at 100-150 million. This figure does not have any factual evidence to support it, and yet it continues to grow.
This, to me, begs the question: why isn’t 38 million a large enough number to inspire action? Why does it need to be exaggerated at all?
It is also worth noting that the sheer number of petitions is a problem in and of itself. There are pages and pages of different petitions created by individuals to put an end to shark finning, all of them as futile as the rest. What do you do? Sign all of them? Sign one and hope it is the one that makes a difference? Give up on the cause entirely because you can’t decide?
The sad result is that the conservation movement has become a quagmire of misinformation, sometimes even bald-faced lies. Separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, can be daunting and nearly impossible, and legitimate causes often are drowned out in the noise.
Having said all of this, I don’t think wanting to do your part, even in a small way, is pointless. But if you truly, sincerely want to make that change, it is going to take a little more than clicking on a petition and signing your name. I’m not saying you need to empty your bank account to charities or volunteer all of your free time away; all I mean to say is that a little fact-checking can go a long way.
If you want to make your voice heard, here are some tips:
- Consider writing to your congressmen, representative, an editor of a newspaper, anyone in a position of power. Trust me, it is better to get one voice across to someone, than a thousand voices to no one.
- Do a quick search online if a cause gets your attention. If you find that the only references to it are anecdotal stories and tens of petitions, it might not be legitimate. On the plus side, doing a search will get you more information on the topic, and might lead you to organisations who have picked up the cause and have ways you can help.
- Be wary of causes that attempt to manipulate your heartstrings and don’t offer up evidence to back up their claims. Make sure you know the facts – sharpen those research skills!
Yes, this is all more effort than just clicking that petition on facebook, but doing the research does not take up much more time, and in an age where information is more accessible than ever, there is no excuse not to do it. It can make all the difference in the world, and you’ll get a lot more satisfaction out of it.