The sneaky reason you should never sign petitions or answer surveys online

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If you're constantly being asked to sign petitions or answer questionnaires online, you are not alone. Political parties and campaigns send out surveys to supporters on a regular basis — and ordinary folks share thousands of petitions each month on sites like Change.org.

The problem? There are downsides to signing, beyond the annoyance you may feel if you don't really care about "causes" like creating a new national monument or putting a veggie burger on the In-N-Out menu. 

Sometimes signing a petition or taking a survey actually results in the quiet sale of your contact information, leading to lots of spam — and tons of requests for money. The GOP's "2017 Priorities" survey, for example, asks innocuous questions like how important it is to come up with a plan to defeat ISIS. Then it asks you for your name, email address and zip code — meaning you'll be hearing from them again. Even if you do care about a cause, it's important to know what you're getting into before you sign or submit a survey.

Here are some key factors to consider, so you don't get spammed or pressured to donate money. Remember: There are probably better ways to financially support just causes that you believe in.

The petition could be a veiled attempt to collect your information — or money

One of the biggest issues to be aware of when you sign a petition or submit a survey is that the primary goal of its conductor is likely to build a contact list. Signing means giving up your details not only to the organization that started the survey or petition, but potentially to whomever they choose to sell it to

Many consulting companies teach nonprofits how to grow their email list through petitions, including using paid advertising to promote their petitions and drive people to sign. (The cost of such promotion is somewhere around $1.75 per email address acquired, according to Upleaf.)

Politicians and political parties do this, too. The GOP's Mainstream Media Accountability Survey and the Democrats' survey about voters' 2018 priorities are both aimed at collecting email addresses. When people share the Media Accountability Survey, it gives both groups more email addresses to send future email blasts to. Indeed, many emails that ostensibly look like "surveys" or "polls" often redirect to fundraising webpages.

So if you sign a petition, then suddenly find yourself bombarded with junk mail, now you know why. If you really want to sign, at least try to provide a separate, junk-mail-specific email address for petitions or surveys so as to avoid clogging up your main inbox with spam.

When is signing a petition worth it?

There may be times when you decide you do want to sign a petition, however. How do you decide?

A good petition has both a compelling message and is targeted at the right decision maker — someone capable of enacting the change. For example, you may agree that the U.S. should not bomb Syria, but signing a petition asking your local mayor to stop the U.S from doing so doesn't make sense. (A petition to your congressional representative or to the president, on the other hand, would be more sensible.) 

Next, consider whether the goal is feasible. "The problem should be one that matters but isn't so big that the goal is impossible," Jason Mogus, principal strategist at NetChange Consulting, said. There should be a clear problem and a viable solution, such as a petition to limit emissions near a polluted national park to reduce air pollution. 

Last, you want to see a credible theory of change and a sense of momentum or social proof that good things are happening: "The petition should make you believe that if enough of you do this thing, and the campaigner delivers the message well, the decision maker targeted in the petition might, just might, cave to your demands," Mogus explained. 

Understand that petitioners often have multiple motives

Petitions are often about more than just the stated goal, whether said goal is to increase funding for medical research, legalize marijuana or what have you: "Most great campaigns are anchored in an online petition, but they can't end there," Mogus explained. "The trick is in crafting what comes next to build momentum."

They may also be aimed at testing out key elements of political campaigns and gauging how passionate supporters are which is why both the GOP and the Democrats have petition sections on their websites with petitions like "Tell Congress to Act on Climate Change" or "Show Your Support for Trump's New Executive Order."

A petition with lots of signatures can sometimes make a difference by helping to attract attention or shape public perceptions of a particular issue. "A popular online petition can put an issue on the media's radar," Dave Karpf, author of Analytic Activism told Mic. If you want a cause you care about to get attention, putting a signature on a petition could be one small way to help make that happen. 

Everyone wants you to sign a petition.
Source: SimpsonsWorld/Giphy

Don't be a slacktivist

Signing an online petition is the easiest — and laziest — way to support a cause. It's also just the first step toward creating real change. "Don't think you made lasting change happen with 3 seconds of your time," Mogus advised.

"Any cause worth fighting for is likely going to require a sustained pressure campaign to achieve its goal," Karpf saidAdditional steps like contacting decision makers, attending hearings and going to marches or rallies can make an even bigger impact. Also consider volunteering for the causes you believe in, voting for politicians who support your values and donating to organizations that address the root causes of problems. 

"Don't stop at the click," Mogus advised. Use it as a way to start becoming a more engaged citizen, then see what else you can do to make lasting change.

Activism can make a difference.
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