The Case Against Mass E-mails: Perverse Incentives and Low Quality Public Participation in U.S. Federal Rulemaking

Stuart W. Shulman, University of Massachussetts Amherst

Abstract

Large-scale e-mail campaigns are a staple in the modern environmental movement. Interest groups increasingly use online mobilizations as a way to raise awareness, money, and membership. There are legitimate political, economic, and organizational reasons for doing so, but these gains may come at the expense of a more substantial and efficacious role for citizens who wish to use e-mail to engage in public participation. This paper situates a close examination of the 1000 longest modified MoveOn.org-generated e-mails sent to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about its 2004 mercury rulemaking, in the broader context of online grassroots lobbying. The findings indicate that only a tiny portion of these public comments constitute potentially relevant new information for the EPA to consider. The vast majority of MoveOn comments are either exact duplicates of a two-sentence form letter, or they are variants of a small number of broad claims about the inadequacy of the proposed rule. This paper argues that norms, rules, and tools will emerge to deal with the burden imposed by these communications. More broadly, it raises doubts about the notion that online public participation is a harbinger of a more deliberative and democratic era.

Recommended Citation

Shulman, Stuart W. (2009) "The Case Against Mass E-mails: Perverse Incentives and Low Quality Public Participation in U.S. Federal Rulemaking," Policy & Internet: Vol. 1: Iss. 1, Article 2.
Available at: http://www.psocommons.org/policyandinternet/vol1/iss1/art2