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The Media

Journal EnlightenmentFan's Journal: Bloggers and Google "out" astroturf 5

In the language of propaganda, it's called the "Just Plain Folks" effect. Letters to the editor, signed by a real person from a home town near you, have a certain down-home credibility--and don't PR moguls know how to play that tune!

Too bad for those moguls--bloggers with Google just leveled the playing field!

The blogs got the story first, and the first news article was Mike Magee's in The Inquirer. Running a Google search turns up 31 identical letters praising the latest Bush tax cuts in identical language. Every single one denounces Democrats' "class warfare rhetoric"; every single one praises Bush for "genuine leadership." Of course, that count misses newspapers whose letters to the editor don't appear online. Could this be one enthusiastic person sending out a lot of letters? If so, it's hard to see why that letter got signed with 31 different names.

Magee's article hints at a spam-generating engine run by the Republican National Committee. Yup, he got that in one. I invite you to try your own experiment. Go over and sign up as a potential "team leader," then check out the form email letter they want you to send. Well, dog my cats, it is identical to the letter bloggers have noticed turning up in papers from Boston to Galveston.*

The blog world caught on last month to a similar scam. Last month's mass-produced letter got into 34 online papers, according to ME Cowan. These letters identically celebrated Republican success in the 2002 elections by praising "the historic majorities achieved by President Bush and Republicans" and lamenting that Bush initiatives had been "stalled in the Democrat-controlled Senate."

Shooting down well-financed-fakers is exactly the kind of stuff we all hoped the Internet would help us do. Woo hoo!

* p.s. Magee's latest article includes a screenshot of the HTML form that generates this letter.

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Bloggers and Google "out" astroturf

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  • I think this makes for a decent /. story. It's got news, politics, and the net. Best of all, it implies a need for paranoia! What more could you ask for?

    One thing tho: it'd be even better if it included some similar point on the Democrats (I'd look for one myself if I wasn't heading to bed).
    • Thanks, memfree. I did submit it. First it was "Pending" for more than 8 hours--then it was rejected. Grrrrr.

      I think the original use of astroturf--to get 10,000 Republicans or Democrats or snowmobile-owners or whatever to send an identical form letter to Ted Kennedy (for instance)--is legitimate. It's sort of like signatures on a petition. Ted Kennedy counts the signatures and gets a rough guess about who supports the petition.

      If you check out the Republican website, it's loaded with html forms to help you send out that kind of "informative astroturf" to your senators, etc. And they use the same kind of forms to send out what I call "deceptive astroturf" to newspapers, whose readers see one single letter signed by one person from a neighboring town and don't realize it's a press release from some guys in Washington.

      I could try to be even-handed by pointing out that the two kinds of astroturf are very similar at the technical level. You create one with just the same kind of forms and scripts you use to create the other--it probably seemed like a great idea to whoever thought it up. You don't have to imagine he was trying to think up ways to be deceptive.

      I haven't looked at the Democratic National Committee's website, but my daughter decided to check it out and she said it had some minimal emails to send to your congressman. To my mind, this makes the Dems look pretty stupid. If they don't know what the Republicans are up to, they're stupid. If they do know, either they approve or disapprove. If they disapprove, they should publicly condemn the Republicans. If they approve, they should do it themselves. (Then I would condemn both parties for doing it.) If they neither imitate nor condemn--what can I say but they must be stupid? I hope that's even-handed enough to please you! ;-P

    • One thing tho: it'd be even better if it included some similar point on the Democrats (I'd look for one myself if I wasn't heading to bed).
      Are the Democrats are doing this? It can be argued that tactically the Republicans fight dirtier than the Democrats.
      • Nobody could argue the Democrats are perfect--for example, it's hard to see how George W. Bush's sex life could generate half as much press as William Clinton's.

        Hey, it's not my fault if the Dems aren't sending out sneaky astroturf. If I were interested in who was having sex or getting drunk, my journal would have a very different focus.

        There was an old shaggy dog joke comparing Democrats to Republicans. I can remember just bits of it. e.g. "Republicans get out of the shower to pee." or, my favorite, "Married Republicans sleep in king-sized beds--and those beds are in separate bedrooms. Married Democrats sleep in the same double bed. That's why there are more Democrats than Republicans." Er--well, as I said, it's a very old joke. ;-P

  • spotted here [blogspot.com].

    Microsoft still holds the Astroturf prize for phoney hand-written letters from senior citizens [newsfactor.com].

I go on working for the same reason a hen goes on laying eggs. -- H.L. Mencken