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The Media

Google vs. Boilerplate Activism 277

Posted by timothy
from the ready-made-indignation dept.
ArmorFiend writes with this NYTimes article which "details the efforts of journalists to discern real reader-written letters from boilerplate form letters. Seems like there should be a centralized searchable DB of letters to the editor."
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Google vs. Boilerplate Activism

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  • Google (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 27, 2003 @04:57PM (#5169737)
    The story mentions Google once and only really as a secondary topic (if that), and it put in the Slashdot story title?
    • Re:Google (Score:5, Funny)

      by Forgotten (225254) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:18PM (#5169870)
      Because the template-filling routines read from a queue. The complete template looks like this:
      from the $deadpan dept.
      $subject vs. $object
      $submitter writes with this $scalpee article which "$quotemademeaninglessbylackofcontext". Seems like $pithyorunarguablyobviousobservation.

      I wish people would use shorter variable names.
    • Re:Google (Score:3, Interesting)

      by kmellis (442405)
      "The story mentions Google once and only really as a secondary topic (if that), and it put in the Slashdot story title?"
      On that basis, it does seem that its legitimacy as a Slashdot story is tenuous. However, I read a variety of stories about this yesterday, and learned more detail. This was discovered as the result of a Google search (supposedly, although I'm not sure how that could have been accidental), and other instances of the same thing continue to be discovered through the use of Google as a research tool. Now, Google is the only (good, comprehensive enough) tool publicly available that could have served for this purpose. Nexis/Lexis would be much better (and I wonder why no one who has access hasn't pursued this story there yet), but it's quite expensive and not generally accessible.

      So, in general, I think the story is appropriate because it's an example of how the Internet yet again is an enabling tool of democracy. It further enabled (what I consider) abuse; and it enabled the ability to detect it.

    • Re:Google (Score:5, Informative)

      by Paul Boutin (102375) on Monday January 27, 2003 @06:19PM (#5170257) Homepage
      And it doesn't mention the obvious hack [slate.com] to the system, either.

      If you spot the "demonstrating genuine leadership" letter, send it to these folks [failureisimpossible.com] who've listed 74 and climbing.

  • by Buran (150348) on Monday January 27, 2003 @04:58PM (#5169746)
    ... if I write a letter to my congresscritter supporting an issue, I support that issue whether or not the original words are entirely mine. After all, presidents use speechwriters -- and this is entirely accepted as the norm (though Lincoln often wrote his own, but that's an abberation.) And yet we say that the president himself (or herself, someday in the future) supports the issue. Why should members of the public be ignored just because they have speechwriters, of a sort? It's the opinion that matters, not the form of the opinion, as long as it's not threatening or rude to another person.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:06PM (#5169803)
      The issue isn't about sending email to support a cause, but specifically letters to the editor of a newspaper. Newspapers excercise editorial control over the letters they choose to print, and wish only to print the original work of the author. "AstroTurf"ing involves passing off the work of another as your own, violating this guideline.
    • by jguevin (453329) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:07PM (#5169808)
      You'll note in the article that one thing editors are concerned about is actually _printing_ these form letters. They're not taking polls, they're actually publishing content, and there's something at least vaguely dishonest about sending a "letter to the editor" that you didn't write.
      • at least *nominally* original. They don't hand a copy of the speach out to each member of Congress who then stands up and repeats it, one after the other.

        Congresscritters employ their *own* speach writers to massage the speach to appear as their own.

        KFG
      • Hmm. True. Perhaps they should allude to the fact that there were lots of letters on the issue which could not be printed, to make it known that there was support, but this way they wouldn't reprint the 'bad' letters.
      • by yali (209015) on Monday January 27, 2003 @07:43PM (#5170831)

        You'll note in the article that one thing editors are concerned about is actually _printing_ these form letters. They're not taking polls, they're actually publishing content, and there's something at least vaguely dishonest about sending a "letter to the editor" that you didn't write.

        Just to support this point -- it's more than vaguely dishonest, it's plagiarism. [m-w.com] It doesn't matter if the original author wants the work passed off or not; passing it off without crediting the source is plagiarism no matter what. (That's why you can't turn in your friend's term paper as your own even if your friend approves.)

    • by radio_jed (644832) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:07PM (#5169809) Journal
      A lot of organizations love to get drones to mail the same letter to the same person, so that it appears that the letter is coming from a different address and the senator/editor/whatever might actually open it. I see the point, then, in making sure that time is not wasted opening these. However, on the flipside, sure, it is the opinion that counts. And he who speaks the loudest wins, right? There's two different ballgames being played here.
    • by ageOfWWIV (641164) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:12PM (#5169832)
      The problem with boilerplate form letters are that people who only have a shallow understanding of an issue or topic can simply mad-lib a form letter and sound like they're informed. This doesn't benefit the recipient nor the writer (who thanks to these canned letters, is given a cheap way out of actually learning, participating or becoming really involved)
      I can't help but notice a similarity between this and students who steal code off the web and claim it as their own.
    • It's dishonest (Score:5, Insightful)

      by fleener (140714) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:12PM (#5169833)
      Buran, "Letters to the editor" are intended and presumed to be the genuine thoughts of the letter writer. A form letter may convey your feelings, but it's not your letter, and so it's not genuine. We expect people to sign their name to their own words.

      Given the example in the news article, sign the letter "Republican National Committee, ditto'd by Buran." That we you stay honest and everyone knows the true nature and history of the letter.

      More importantly, if you can't take five minutes to put your own thoughts into a letter, how passionately can you really be about a given issue? Authentic (original) letter writing creates a natural weeding process that pushes less important issues into the background and that is a good thing. Mass-produced letters create an artificial and false impression that issues are more strongly felt and realized in society than they really are. It brings politics, money and marketing campaigns to the newspaper opinion page, where they don't belong -- unless opinions by such forces are honestly divulged.
    • Correct. And think about the tax dollar savings! Ever compile the results of 30,000 hadwritten letters and faxes? Shove emails into a database and you are minutes from an accurate tabulation of the mind of the people!

      I suspect this is just another attempt to discourage people from bothering elected officials with input. Can we get the election turnout below 25%? Anyone?
    • But if you use exactly the same language, then the person on the other end doesn't know whether 15 people sent the same letter or 1 person sent the letter 15 times. No one reads the return address and postmark on the letters.

      Plus, if I see that all you did was grab the generic text, then I might think that your commitment is pretty shallow.
    • by FunWithHeadlines (644929) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:18PM (#5169871) Homepage
      "Why should members of the public be ignored just because they have speechwriters, of a sort?"

      For the same reason we don't allow students to hand in boilerplate exam papers just because they agree with everything in the boilerplate: You want to see what the student actually knows and thinks.

      So too in this situation. If you get a letter to the editor written by the speechwriter, how can you know if that really expresses the opinion of the person emailing it? It could be that the person doesn't really agree, but was sent it by an organization he or she trusts and just passed it on to cooperate.

      • A good point. I wonder, what would the reaction be to sites that can generate letters based on answers to carefully chosen questions about an issue? That way, you do get your opinions reflected, if the system is prepared well, but there are still some advantages of making it easy to write in support of an issue.

        Though yes, my comments work better with things like letters to congress than they do with letters to the editor. (I've written editors several times, but never with form letters.)
    • Bush barely has control of his bowels, much less his diction, word choice, or pronunciation.
      "Wah ohn terra." Sure. Whatever you say, President Prezel.

      Perhaps we can get the keepers of 'Koko the signing monkey' to come and translate for him...

    • by charvolant (224858) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:26PM (#5169927) Homepage
      There's a minimum thought requirement, particularly for newspaper letters pages.

      Actually writing your own letter indicates that you have, however minimally, thought about the issues. Form letters simply encourage knee-jeck reactions.

      The form letter producers want knee-jerks, of course. If you actually wrote your own letter, you would start thinking about evidence, details, problems and shades of grey. And before you know it, you're arguing over what policy is appropriate, thinking as an individual and removing the illusion of a united front. Activists of any stripe just hate that.

      • And before you know it, you're arguing over what policy is appropriate, thinking as an individual and removing the illusion of a united front. Activists of any stripe just hate that.

        Well, except for the activists for the Think For Yourself Front. :)
    • by _xeno_ (155264) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:26PM (#5169929) Homepage Journal
      Other people have already posted the gist of this message, but I'll try and explain better since most of them were very short. I like verbosity :)

      Basically, the issue has to do with the "Letters to the Editor" section that almost all newspapers post. These are supposed to be letters written by local people about issues they actually care enough about to write to the paper about. This is not letters to representatives to allow them to know how their constituants feel.

      From the article: "Editors say some readers simply do not understand the ethical issues of sending a letter written by someone else." These are real editors, not the techno-weenies we have around here :). They want to post what people actually feel and actually wrote to encourage discussion and thought with their readers. They do not want to post press releases from various organizations.

      Think of it this way. Microsoft creates a "Post a Windows is Secure Comment Generator" on their webpage and encourages Windows administrators to use it to automatically submit comments and stories to Slashdot, Kuro5hin, and other community sites. Most people I think would call that trolling or at the very least dishonest. This is a similar thing - groups are creating forms that allow someone to just sign it and send it into the paper. The person signing the form may agree with the statement, but it's not something that they actually wrote and does not deserve to be published. It's kind of like spamming a forum - allowing people to easily send many letters to the editor without actually thinking about it.

      So the editors are moderating the forum of incoming letters and selecting the letters that they feel are most worthy to be shown to the populace at large - letters written by people that actually feel the urge to write their opinions on a given topic and not someone who agrees enough to send a form-letter to a newspaper.

      I agree with what they are doing - they are performing their duties as editors by trying to ensure that only letters written by people who feel strongly enough to actually compose a letter are actually published in the paper. This isn't like when the Bush administration ignored 70% of received comments because "they were form letters" - this is editting a paper. The paper tries to display views from all sides of an issue and wants to post views by actual local readers, and not by national orginizations. It's what the editors (of the paper :)) are supposed to be doing.

    • Why is the above article so highly moderated? Obviously, the guy didn't read the linked article. It should be moderated to oblivion.
    • ... if I write a letter to my congresscritter supporting an issue, I support that issue whether or not the original words are entirely mine. After all, presidents use speechwriters -- and this is entirely accepted as the norm (though Lincoln often wrote his own, but that's an abberation.) And yet we say that the president himself (or herself, someday in the future) supports the issue. Why should members of the public be ignored just because they have speechwriters, of a sort? It's the opinion that matters, not the form of the opinion, as long as it's not threatening or rude to another person.
    • by Zeinfeld (263942) on Monday January 27, 2003 @06:46PM (#5170438) Homepage
      ... if I write a letter to my congresscritter supporting an issue, I support that issue whether or not the original words are entirely mine

      Yes but the congresscritters want to know how committed you are to that point of view. So believe it or not a five line handwritten 'kitchen table' letter is regarded far more highly than a laser printed form letter.

      Thats not quite what is being talked about here which is bogus letters to the editor. Looks like the GOP is getting really rattled by the drop in Bush's opinion ratings which are now lower than his father's at the same point in the cycle. So they have a Web site that pumps out bogus letters to the editor under the names and addresses of local supporters. They need the local addresses because even the most ludicrous GOP lapdogs like the New York Post are not going to publish a letter saying 'President Bush is the greatest President ever, he has been demonstrating genuine leadership, blah blah' if it is from GOP HQ. And even if they did publish it readers would ignore it as a piece of ludicrous propaganda.

      The GOP 'aliengrams' [unblinking.com] only have force if their source is disguised. They are written as independent letters of support. The only thing that makes them of interest to a local paper is that they come from a local person. Hence the need for the lie.

      Campaign tactics of this sort say a lot about the character (or rather lack of it) of the politicians who use them. The intention is to deceive people into believing that there is widespread support for Bush's policies such as the invasion of Iraq.

      The major newspapers like the London Times or the New York Times will almost always call before publishing, at least in my experience. The London Times wants to know that the letter has only been sent to them, and will quite often want to edit for length (although my style is compact enough to usually not need this).

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 27, 2003 @04:58PM (#5169756)
    need a centralized searchable DB of trolls to discern real reader-written trolls from boilerplate form trolls.
  • by sammyo (166904) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:00PM (#5169769) Journal
    How about a filter that adds a bit of lexical noise to each email to the congressman or editor? A proxy service? Hmm, lobbying and such are big business, market opportunity anyone?
  • Boilerplate? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:01PM (#5169772)
    Why should a sentiment be trivialized just because the sender decided to use a statement that was prepared by another? Many people are either not verbally eloquent or lack the confidence to write in their own words. If a person agrees with what they send, shouldn't that be the determinant? We sign contracts we didn't write all the time. How is this any different?
    • Re:Boilerplate? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by teamhasnoi (554944) <teamhasnoi@@@yahoo...com> on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:15PM (#5169856) Homepage Journal
      Dear /.,

      Why should a sentiment be trivialized just because the sender decided to use a statement that was prepared by another? Many people are either not verbally eloquent or lack the confidence to write in their own words. If a person agrees with what they send, shouldn't that be the determinant? We sign contracts we didn't write all the time. How is this any different?

      Signed, teamhasnoi

      PS. This is why. It's lame. I want to hear the words of the person sending the letter - I can then determine if they actually know what they are taliking about, if they have a personal stake in the issue, if they have even done any research - or if they are another monkey banging on a Brother Word Processor. If you can't take the time to form your own words about something you believe in enough to send a letter/email about, how can I be sure that the issue and the reasons and situations behind it are fixed in your mind?

      Why doesn't the NYT hook up with the same people who are checking term papers and thesis papers for cheating - IIRC, they had a database of every paper that anyone ever turned in - it then checked new papers against the DB to see if there were matching word patterns or entire paragraphs lifted. The link escapes me, but it was posted here last year sometime...

    • Re:Boilerplate? (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      If writing in one's own words is such an intellectual burden that one can't be bothered to do it, can one be trusted to actually read an understand the boilerplate with which one allegedly agrees?
    • Re:Boilerplate? (Score:3, Interesting)

      by rthille (8526)
      If I care about an issue enough to click a link in an email sent to me by a group I belong to, I care about the issue. Or at least I think the people running the group I belong to care about the same issues that I do, so I'm willing to say I care about their issues. Regardless of whether I read the letter "I'm sending".
      On the other hand, if I sit down and write out a letter in cursive or block letters by hand, put it in an envelope and pay $0.37 to mail it to the editor it's likely the issue is something I really do care about.
      Sure, I _might_ care about the two different issues just as much. But how much I care sure shows more in the later case.
    • Re:Boilerplate? (Score:2, Insightful)

      by zabieru (622547)
      Because it's a newspaper. Send all the boilerplate you want to your senator, or the President, or a company. They care. But a reader of a letters page doesn't want to know what Planned Parenthood or the RNC think, if they did they'd just go read the articles about those organizations.
  • Silly (Score:5, Interesting)

    by unterderbrucke (628741) <unterderbrucke@yahoo.com> on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:02PM (#5169777)
    Boilerplate activism is one of the greatest inventions ever. As the head of a non-profit group based in NY (can't say which, legal reasons), it is tremendously easy to provide a boilerplate to people concerned about issues rather than make them write an individual letter.

    If we were to make them write an individual letter, with the state our society has collectively fallen into, I'd estimate about 2-3% of the current correspondence mailed would still be mailed.
    • Re:Silly (Score:3, Interesting)

      by EatHam (597465)
      While I'm not sure if I would call boilerplate activish one of the greatest inventions ever, I do think that it has its place. However, I also think that the people reading these things would begin to notice if they receive thousands of identical letters. Therefore, I think that these things have the potential to become self-trivializing without any other help.
    • Re:Silly (Score:2, Interesting)

      But I can see why they are going to take more seriously opinions that a person takes the time to think about rather than just signing their name to the end of a pre-generated letter and sending it along.

      It's kind of like the difference between a letter and a card.

      There is more care and attention when someone thinks their own words through than just copy and paste another's.
    • "If we were to make them write an individual letter, with the state our society has collectively fallen into, I'd estimate about 2-3% of the current correspondence mailed would still be mailed."

      Nar, we live in the email age, there'd be a much bigger turn out. However, excessive use of the word 'suck' would probably get a lot of e-mails accidentally deleted.

      I agree, boilerplate activism definitely works better.
    • Re:Silly (Score:3, Interesting)

      by m0rph3us0 (549631)
      Boilerplate Activism vs. Petitions I think what these people mean to do is setup a petition, this is where one person writes their ideas and others sign in stating that they agree instead of pretending that these are the words of their own. What you can do is send the petition in to a paper once you have collected enough signatures. And the paper can choose to print the petition and then mention that X number of people signed it.
    • Re:Silly (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:34PM (#5169971)
      On the other hand, if public servants had their incoming mail reduced by 97%, perhaps they'd have time to read and give weight to the letters that people actually do write, rather than having some office worker reduce it to a tick in the "supports" or "doesn't support" column.

      Folks, we all learned (or should have learned) in Economics 101 that scarcity leads to value. I'm sure that deluging a public servant with mailbags was a good way to make a point once upon a time, but now that everyone on either side of an issue does it regularly, those same public servants have grown accustomed to it and the impact is no longer as great.
    • Re:Silly (Score:5, Interesting)

      by MrEd (60684) <tonedog AT hailmail DOT net> on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:37PM (#5169990)
      Contrariwise, when I was volunteering for the Kingston Green Party (Ontario (Canada)) doing public awareness work about herbicide/pesticide issues the local paper recieved numerous pro-chemicals letters from 'concerned citizens'.

      Upon closer inspection we discovered that they were industry astroturfers mailing in from out of town. They were writing pro-pesticide letters to any local paper that was covering the issues.


      This leads me to believe that this type of misrepresentation goes on all the time. I would be in favor of any technology that would either allow editors to check on the legitimacy of letters or, if they were not so inclined, at least aid after-the-press detective work.

    • Re:Silly (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Otter (3800) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:37PM (#5169992) Journal
      First of all, while others have pointed this out, it seems to require repeating: the article is concerned with letters to the editor. Newspapers and magazines want to publish original writing, not to reprint form letters with some reader's name pasted in at the bottom.

      Regarding form letters to legislators or corporations, which is what you seem to have in mind, they have an impact proportional to the effort they represent. They carry more weigh than nothing, but less than a message in the writer's own words, precisely because they're " tremendously easy" to send.

    • by yoz (3735) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:47PM (#5170063) Homepage
      As the head of a non-profit group based in NY (can't say which, legal reasons), it is tremendously easy to provide a boilerplate to people concerned about issues rather than make them write an individual letter.

      As a volunteer for a non-profit site in the UK that does its best to encourage democracy [faxyourmp.com], I can say that form (boilerplate) letters are a major threat to the effectiveness of our service and thus we block them whenever possible.

      I have ranted elsewhere about this in this /. thread: see here [slashdot.org].

      The time and money resources that editors and politicians devote to reading communications is finite. I beg you to think about the individually-crafted letters written by authors without your publicity machines (organisational or mechanical) that you are blocking with your spam.

      -- Yoz
    • Re:Silly (Score:4, Insightful)

      by deanj (519759) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:53PM (#5170097)
      Boilerplate activism is completely pointless. It does the typical and ineffective thing: it makes the person signing it feel good, so they can get on with their life without actually doing anything about it. Say your against something, and you can act any way you want. I've seen it over and over.

      If people would actually take part in what they believe in, and tell it in their own words, it has a helluva lot more impact that some form letter.

      Thank goodness this is the way most activism is done these days. Keep it up, and we'll keep ignoring it.

    • If people can't get off their fscking duffs and write to their congressmen, then they get whatever they deserve.
  • huh? (Score:2, Funny)

    by pummer (637413)
    Editors and Lobbyists Wage High-Tech War Over Letters
    By JENNIFER 8. LEE


    Jennifer 8. Lee??!?!?
  • by Moorlock (128824) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:04PM (#5169794) Homepage

    There are so many vulnerabilities to the news media's meme filters. Check out the list at sniggle.net [sniggle.net] for instance.

    In this arms race, like that with copy protection and access restriction schemes, the advantage is all in favor of the clever crackers I think.

    When form letters get well-filtered, algorithmically-generated letters a la the Dada Engine [google.com] will step up to the plate. From there, the race will be on.

  • by FunWithHeadlines (644929) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:05PM (#5169800) Homepage
    I found the following two quotes of interest in the NYT article:

    "Editors say some readers simply do not understand the ethical issues of sending a letter written by someone else. "They had no idea that they were bending any sort of rules whatsoever or that they were trying to put one over on us," Ms. Clotfelter said. "I e-mailed back and forth with one woman who was distressed that we wouldn't print her letter because it was really how she felt."

    OK, that is how the lady felt, but it wasn't her letter. If she really felt that strongly about something, she should put her own words down. Even if a boilerplate version is thrust under her nose, write about it in her own words. I don't care how carefully crafted a letter someone else has written for you, it isn't your letter. It may express the same thoughts, but not in just the way you would express them.

    "Others defend their use of form letters. "I've seen the same thing from the other side," said Trevor D. Carlson, who signed one of the pro-Bush form letters to The Press Democrat."

    ROFL! Oh, so then it's OK. After all, we all know that if the other side does it it must be OK to do it too.

    Moral thinking? Perish the thought!

    -------

    • If the "not their own words" exclusion applies, what happens if the writer used a spell checker, thesaurus, or grammar checker? What about some kind of intelligent assistant that can suggest phrases?

      For the "boilerplate activists", it should not be too hard to produce some kind of program that would vary the phrasing enough to avoid content-matching filters.

      So, how do we distinguish between a person's opinion and the expression of that opinion? I would be interested to hear some suggestions, but I'm not sure that it is reasonably possible.
      • Well, letting people know it is wrong, for one. Convince organizations to stop encrouraging it, for another. Treat it as a social problem, first, and a technological problem second.

        I think most people genuinely want to be honest, they just don't realize how big of a difference there is between submitting a letter that is their own vs. one that they agree with but didn't write.

        Another idea: have a nice, friendly "so you want to write a letter to the editor" message in the opinion section and online that explains not only how to submit a letter to the editor, but how to go about writing one, suggests sources to look for information, that sort of thing. Sort of a 2 minute quick-start guide to writing that encourages people to read opinion statements from organizations supporting their cause fpr style guidance, but to write in their own words how they feel.
  • by goatasaur (604450) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:05PM (#5169801) Journal
    E-mail written by a human being:

    "How are you doin? I was hanging oout with aunt sally today and you should see her goiter! its the size of a watermelon... and mabel says blah blah blah..."

    E-mail compiled by a spam program:

    "HEY misterbigpants@mailservice.com, increase your penis size TODAY! CLICK HERE [mega-enlargement.com] for more details! LADJF43253K42LJ34L3K23JK4."

    So you can see, humans have about as much interesting things to say as spam does. Maybe even more; I'm way more inclined to make my penis bigger than to hear the droll minutae of my family's lives. Who isn't?
  • More impact. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by www.sorehands.com (142825) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:05PM (#5169802) Homepage
    Go into your representitives' office and talk with them in person. Go and testify at public hearings.


    When they have hundreds of people showing up at their office, they can't hit the delete key.

  • While I can understand the frustration with boilerplate letters to the editor, I personally feel that boilerplate letters to our members of congress is a good thing.

    I am glad grass roots organizations bring to my attention issues that are important to me, and I have taken the time to print off a form letter, sign it and mail it off to my senators and representative.

    The corporations use big money to influence government, the grass roots people should use whatever means they have to get us to speak up, even if it is just a click away...
  • Drum n' Bayesian (Score:2, Interesting)

    Why not take it a step further, have it check the database and filter out the noise?
  • by Donut (128871) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:10PM (#5169824)
    Here [lileks.com] is a guy using google to find out that a journalist's "normal american citizen" source is actually an activist, and a history teacher to boot.

    Using google to fact check people is a part of life now - and I love it.

    Donut

    • There was a great cartoon in the paper this weekend. The scene was a classroom, and a kid with a laptop. The bubble coming from the kid was something like: "Miss Wormwood, Google beggs to differ." :-)
    • *gasp* an activist, how horrible! Even worse, a history teacher? The bastard! (obviously part of the intellectual elite, and we know what they can get up to; i.e. communism and whatnot) That's next door to terrorism!

      I mean, come on. Aren't people allowed to have opinions anymore? Besides, that guy (the history teacher) makes a lot of sense, (IMO, of course) and that doesn't require a teaching position.

      Who is the guy complaining? [lileks.com] A newspaper guy and former talk radio-show host. I quote:

      "I work in journalism, but I'm not a journalist - that title is best reserved for people who do the hard work of calling up sources, checking leads, and other forms of diligent labor. I make things up, really."

      Yeah, lots better than a history teacher.

      M-

    • [...]
      using google to find out that a journalist's "normal american citizen" source is actually an activist, and a history teacher to boot.
      Hey, thanks for the warning! Somebody call out the INS and hvae them deport that man to France at once!

      We all know that "normal american citizen(s)" would never be caught having an opinion on any issue until asked by a proper journalist or polling organization. Not only does this guy have an opinion already, but he's admitted to online. He's been telling!

      Sure, maybe we can forgive knowing a little about history (the war of 1812 happened in 1812, right?). But this guy's actually teaching others about it?!?
      He can't possibly be a "normal american citizen". He knows too much!

    • Because, hey, everyone knows that all history teachers are seasoned propagandists, and none of them have any political concerns of their own. Heaven forfend that they might on a personal level disagree with me.

      And, by the Gods, if someone dares to comment personally on a subject which they feel strongly enough about to get involved with other organisations to support it...
      And not even for pay! The perfidy!

      By comparison, the tendancy of large or fanatic organisations to write a single letter and send it via ten thousand drones in the hope of astro-turfing the debate... merely a pecadillo, almost beneath comment!

  • Lexis-Nexis (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Cheshyre (43113) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:13PM (#5169836) Homepage
    As far as I know, most newspapers subscribe to Lexis-Nexis (a pay service). And I have successfully searched Lexis-Nexis for letters to the editor in the past.

    It really depends on what a particular newspaper archives.

    But, since most newspaper letter columns state that submitted letters become the property of the newspaper, there should be no copyright issues stemming from Tasini vs. NYTimes to prevent the letters from being archived.

    In other words, the information is already there; the papers just have to check it!
  • by Gizzmonic (412910) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:13PM (#5169837) Homepage Journal
    Remember when Microsoft supported a 'grassroots' campaign to have people write in to their local newspaper and talk about how they supported Microsoft during the anti-trust trial?

    These journalists are working to make sure they don't get played like that. And of course, clever public relations professionals are always trying to make boilerplate look less like boilerplate...

    Advertising is drying up, pure and simple. Most modern ads don't even list the advantages of their product in a traditional manner.

    P.R. is the new advertising...in the future, it will be very difficult to tell genuine product reviews from laudatory PR copy. Sophisticated PR will lead to the collapse of trust in the media-and I welcome it! People trust the media far too much already...

    here's a tip from me to you: if your local news is reporting about 'a miracle diet,' or a 'revolutionary new (fat/aging/heart attack) fighter', they are just lazily barfing up public relations. learn to recognize PR, and educate your friends about it. maybe in the future, you will be able to make money determining which media outlets are legit, and which are paved in Astroturf..
  • by Milo Fungus (232863) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:17PM (#5169866)

    Everyone copy and paste this letter and send it to the Republican National Committee [mailto]

    :

    Dear Republican National Committee,

    I am opposed to your use of form letters in your activists efforts. I think people should express their own opinions in their own words.

    Sincerely,
    (insert your name here)


    • Everyone copy and paste this letter and send it to the Republican National Committee [mailto]
      :
      Dear Republican National Committee,
      I am opposed to your use of form letters in your activists efforts. I think people should express their own opinions in their own words.
      Sincerely,
      (insert your name here)


      "Sir, there's another letter for you from a Mr. 'I.Y. Name Here'. Should I put it on your desk with the others?"
    • Or an alternate version for the PPI. Be sure to cut and paste different paragraphs from it:

      Dear Planned Parenthood Initiative,

      I am opposed to your use of form letters in your activists efforts. I think people should express their own opinions in their own words.

      I think people should express their own opinions in their own words, therefore I am opposed to your use of form letters in your activists efforts.

      Like, I think people should totally have opinions, and stuff, but like, they should be their own. You're totally not an individual if you can only express yourself through someone else's words.

      To form letters, opposed I am. Opinions given by individual, should be.

      Sincerely,
      (insert your name here)

  • by mdwebster (158623) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:18PM (#5169877)
    I saw this on Yahoo earlier today.
    Yahoo link [yahoo.com]

    Hey, you can win a T-shirt or a cooler if you get enough of their letters published in your local papers.
  • by capedgirardeau (531367) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:22PM (#5169899)
    I have wanted to make a quick application that searches google using an automated, user definable sub-set of words as a string of a larger work to try and find other works by an author or discover if something might be derivative of another work.

    For example:

    "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their counry"

    My app, with a user defined word sub string of 4 would first search for:

    "Now is the time"
    "is the time for"
    "the time for all"
    "time for all good"
    "for all good men"

    etc...

    until it had searched for the entire thing 4 words at a time.

    It would collect the urls of say the first 50 matches for each sub string and then correlate which urls had multiple sub strings appearing.

    The url with the most hits would likely be the document or the document the one I was analyzing came from.

    You would tune the number of words in the sub-string to try and filter out non matches or find more matches if you were not finding enough.

    That is was my quick idea for finding documents that were plagerize or maybe other works by a letter writer.

    I think with google's open api it could be done pretty easy, next free week I get I will write it maybe. Any feedback on my logic here would be appreciated of course.

    Just an idea.

    Cheers
    • I agree with your use of the word "plagerize".[sic] I looked up "plagiarize" in Merriam-Webster [m-w.com] (which is the only reason I can spell "plagiarize"). The result is: "to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own : use (another's production) without crediting the source."

      Clearly, if I were to copy a work of yours and sign my name to it without giving you credit, I would be guilty of plagiarism. Even if I had your permission (or blessing, as is the case here), it would be plagiarism. Plagiarism at work can get you reprimanded or even fired. Plagiarism in school can get you a failing grade or an expulsion. It is a big deal to writers, and I am not surprised to see the newspaper editors work so hard to avoid publishing such works. I am surprised that this word did not make it into the the New York Times article. Spineless.

  • I think there's a difference between letters to the editor and other kinds of communication mentioned in the article, such as letters to congressional representatives. When you send a letter to your representative or senator, you're really just voting, in a way. I don't think they really read them -- they just tabulate for and against on specific issues. The fact that the internet makes it easier for people to participate in this kind of democracy is great (as long as people read the letters they sign). Amnesty International has a program called Freedom Writers [amnestyusa.org] which is very similar, and I don't think anyone would want a dictator to ignore a landslide of letters in support of a political prisoner, just because it was obvious astroturfing by Amnesty International

    But letters to the editor are treated as if they come from individuals. So, while encouraging people to write to their newspapers is one thing, encouraging them to write this to their newspaper, because the audience of these letters is partly the editors but also partly the general public, seems much more like the creation of propaganda -- like hiring actors to say something everywhere everyday until people believe it's true because they keep hearing it. Insofar as editors are paying attention to public opinion they should take these letters into account, but their job is, I hope, to be more thoughtful than that.

    • I'm a member of Amnesty, and have participated in letter-writing campaigns. They don't provide you with boilerplate text. Instead, they give you the relevant details and ask you to write your own letter based on them.

      I must admit, sometimes I felt like there wasn't enough background provided and I wanted (and sometimes obtained) more information about the subject I wrote about, but this is a world away from just creating form letters with zero thought.

  • by H0NGK0NGPH00EY (210370) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:26PM (#5169930) Homepage
    Back a few years ago while I was in college, a friend and I ran a little humor club of sorts... Our "publications" were few, but we thought they were pretty quality...

    Anyway, in the parody [timandjeni.com] that we made of our school's website [spu.edu], we encouraged people to use Scott Pakin's automatic complaint-letter generator [sigusr1.org] to generate letters to submit to our school paper [thefalcononline.com] as letters to the editor. As it turns out, I was reading said paper a few months later, and came across a very familiar writing style [thefalcononline.com]... We got quite a kick out of it.

    ahh... memories.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Twenty people submitting original essays, or twenty-thousand people sending the same message?
  • by exp(pi*sqrt(163)) (613870) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:31PM (#5169961) Journal
    What next? Newspapers and other news agencies printing press releases from corporations verbatim and claiming they are news?
  • by Snowhare (263311) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:35PM (#5169977) Homepage
    Politicians and other public figures use some rules of thumb about letter writing campaigns that let them gauge the issue's importance to their people 'back home'. One of those rules is that there are X times more people with an opinion than the number of letter writers for each type of letter recieved.

    These rules have different levels for 'letters to the editor', 'email to my congresscritter' and 'handwritten letter to my congresscritter'.

    What the boilerplate shops are trying to do is 'game' those rules for judging the importance of letters: They lower the threshold for sending a letter (thus making the X factor smaller) while convincing the target that it belongs to a category with a larger X factor. Thus the target believes that the issue is significantly more important to his constituency than it actually is.

    This is the basic dishonesty of boilerplate letter campaigns.
  • by KoolDude (614134) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:37PM (#5169993)

    If making a centralized DB could solve the problem, we wouldn't see so many repeated stories on /. ;)
  • by yoz (3735) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:38PM (#5170002) Homepage
    I'm a volunteer for a UK site that enables citizens to fax/email their Member of Parliament [faxyourmp.com]. We are a non-profit organisation that exists because (a) we think being able to contact one's elected representative through the net is important and (b) Parliament, being the technophobic fools that they are, still haven't got around to implementing a real equivalent.

    Boilerplate form letters are a major threat to our service. Part of our FAQ pleads with users on the topic:

    If you're a pressure group, please think about what you're doing. If you encourage all your members to write to the same MP, you will not show that MP the depth of support for your issue. You'll simply have used up a few sheets of tax-funded fax paper, and irritated an underpaid secretary or researcher. And if you encourage them all to send the same rote letter, MPs will just assume you have a nasty little man with a photocopier blasting them out from your office, and ignore you even more than they did before.

    We consider the use of form letters to be an abuse of our service. Not only does it have the problems outlined above, but the effectiveness of our service depends on MPs' willingness to read messages sent from us - we are not an officially sanctioned communication method. If they consider us a source of pointless spam, then legitimate messages will be ignored too.

    As a result, when we're made aware of form letters going through our system, we add code to block them.

    Thus, I find it quite mystifying when I see party politicians espousing the benefits of boilerplate activism. Either they haven't thought about what'll happen when they start being spammed by supposedly-legitimate communications from their constituents, or they're ignoring their constituents anyway.

    -- Yoz
  • by EnlightenmentFan (617608) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:40PM (#5170018) Homepage Journal
    As Paul Boutin [weblogger.com] points out in his blog, the NYT fails to mention that this is a story of nerds, webloggers, and message board people who caught some well-funded people doing stuff they never planned to get called on. (The first news story was Mike Magee's over in the Inquirer, and the Inquirer has been all over this story, including some very funny screenshots of the fine prizes [theinquirer.net] Republicans earn by sending those letters pretending you wrote them yourself.) [msn.com]

    Boutin's Slate article has the dirt and is funny to boot.

  • by Alien54 (180860) on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:42PM (#5170032) Journal
    there are a number of firms that will do hand written letters to politicians for a price. [for example Pin Point Communications [pinpointc.com]]

    they range all over the place from small outfits to the monstrous.

    So this thing of carbon copy letters is really the mark of an political script kiddy. A pro would be able to get unique mail written every time.

  • by Petrox (525639) <.pp502. .at. .nyu.edu.> on Monday January 27, 2003 @05:50PM (#5170075) Homepage
    In the summer and fall of 2000, I worked in the press office of a high profile congressional race (Washington's 1st Congressional District, where Microsoft resides, in fact). Part of my job included trying to get as many letters in support of my candidate published in the dozen area papers as possible. I was quite successful in getting letters published without ever having to form letters. Here's how:

    From among all of our campaign volunteers, I gathered a group of people specially interested in helping out with our media efforts. I had a core media volunteer list of about 75 people. Every week, I would send an email to these people with talking points for these letters and addresses for the papers I hoped them to send their letter to. Every time, without fail, that I sent out these talking points four or five letters would be published within a week. I think the reason I had such success was because I can't write letters as well as the collective efforts of 75 people. If the issue is education, a volunteer teacher will always write a better and more viable letter than me. If the issue is Social Security, a retiree will have a more impassioned response than any 20 year old could ever hope.

    So in the end, I think form letters are a way of cheating. They discourage people from calling upon their own experiences in writing letters and getting involved in issues. With a carefully selected pool of volunteers, it's not very difficult to get letters published.
  • by alansz (142137) on Monday January 27, 2003 @06:01PM (#5170144) Homepage
    Give a particular topic of letter, this problem isn't too different than looking for spam vs. ham, and can be approached in similar ways (e.g. Bayesian filter).

    Actually, you probably could do quite well identifying boilerplate by simply dropping all punctuations, spaces, and capitalized words, and then computing a hash (say, md5) over every even letter and over every odd letter. If either hash matches either hash of another letter, that should
    be a very specific indication of boilerplating.

    These still require a corpus of letters, though, or a way to generate one from a search.
  • by Parsec (1702) on Monday January 27, 2003 @06:02PM (#5170147) Homepage Journal

    Once the Office of Information Awareness gets its fingers into that, they'll be able to tell us which letters are boilerplate.

  • Good (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mao che minh (611166) on Monday January 27, 2003 @06:09PM (#5170184) Journal
    The widespread use of a boilerplate speaks volumes as to how generally accepted it's containined opinion is. The more concerned citizens using the same boilerplate, the more that this-or-that issue means to the community at large (or better yet, your reader base).
  • As more political campaign material moves online, it might be interesting to apply a similar process and analyze candidates' speeches and promotional materials with an eye to uncovering how much stump speech is original. A lot of candidates make only modest efforts to repackage what is, in effect, a centrally distributed message: the party line. This is less crude than the cut-and-paste activism decried in the article, but it bears comparison. Since pattern recognition techniques can smack down commercial robots, why not sic them on the political automatons as well?
  • by Nova Express (100383) <lawrenceperson@noSPaM.gmail.com> on Monday January 27, 2003 @06:52PM (#5170479) Homepage Journal
    I AM OUTRAGED THAT Slashdot IS QUESTIONING MICROSOFT'S COMMITMENT TO not faking letters to the editor. MICROSOFT HAS LONG SUPPORTED not faking letters to the editor, AND CURRENT ACCUSATIONS OTHERWISE ARE MERELY OPPORTUNISTIC PROPOGANDA BY COMPETITORS LIKE Sun, Apple, IBM, Linux, the United States Government, WHO, HAVING BEEN BEATEN IN THE MARKETPLACE, ARE TRYING TO CURTAIL MICROSOFT'S FREEDOM TO INNOVATE. YOU SHOULD SEE Slashdot's BASELESS CHARGES FOR WHAT THEY ARE: OPPORTUNISTIC LIES BY A KNOWN MICROSOFT-BASHER, SUPPORTED BY MICROSOFT'S COMPETITORS. IN THE FUTURE, PLEASE REFRAIM FROM LETTING Slashdot USE Slashdot AS A FORUM FOR UNFOUNDED PROPAGANDA.



    SINCERELY,



    John Smith

    johnsmith@microsoft.com



    P.S. PLEASE NOTE THAT I, John Smith, HAVE NO RELTIONSHIP WITH THE MICROSOFT CORPORATION, CREATORS OF WINDOWS(R), MS OFFICE(R), INTERNET EXPLORER(R), AND OTHER FINE SOFTWARE PRODUCTS.

  • by EnlightenmentFan (617608) on Monday January 27, 2003 @07:30PM (#5170715) Homepage Journal
    All form letters are not created equal. Suppose Group A and Group B both hate snowmobiles. Both groups pay somebody to write a letter blasting snowmobiles, and post it on their website. 500 members of each group click "Submit" to sign the letter and send it.

    "Informative astroturf": Group A's form sends 500 emails to a Congressional committee. This is like sending a petition with 500 signatures. It is not meant to trick the committee in any way--just to show the level of suppport.

    "Deceptive Astroturf": Group B's form sends 500 signed emails to 500 different local papers as "Letters to the Editor." This is meant to trick the paper into giving free space instead of paying for ad space. It is meant to trick readers into thinking somebody from a local town wrote the letter--that's what propagandists call the "Plain Folks" trick.

    Nobody is saying that the Republicans are the first group, or the only group, to try deceptive astroturf. But I think big, well-funded groups should be held to a higher standard than this. If nothing else, they could afford to pay those little papers for the space to air their views.

  • the software exists (Score:3, Informative)

    by Wierd Willy (161814) on Monday January 27, 2003 @07:59PM (#5170928) Journal
    Remember a company called Digital Integrity? they folded a few years ago for lack of funding due to the dot-com bailout in 2000. they had a good, legitimate product and an excellent crew to make it work. they made a search engine that searched and compared whole blocks of text, originally written by a professor at Berkeley to look for plaigerism in students termpapers. The software ran on unix and linux and was written in C++. I wonder what happened to the software? Sounds like it would be a good application for this sort of thing. The Boilerplate letters I get in my spam folder every day are pathetically written, and rarely actually reflect the opinions of the illiterate morons that use them.

  • by tribguru (458685) on Monday January 27, 2003 @08:25PM (#5171062)
    I'm pretty sure that a repository of letters to the editor is already being kept [fbi.gov] for your protection.

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