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« Blog Commentator to TV News Show: Bye, Bye | Main | Doing Pro Journalists' Work For Them »

April 24, 2005


Amy Gahran

As reprehensible as astroturf campaigns are in print and broadcast media, I'm sure fake letters to the editor pale in comparison to what goes on in the universe of weblog comments. Just another reason why you should never, ever take anything for granted -- especially online.

- Amy Gahran


I do wish the CC Times (thanks Johnny) article had also provided samples of the guy's letters. I suspect the same thing happens on a widespread basis in other areas.

So, again, if newspaper management cared, they could require that the submitter swear that the letter was his own work and that he was a real person and that conflicts of interest be disclosed.

Likewise, anyone designing a comments submission form really ought to include required checkboxes and fields for this stuff.

i.e., the first step is to deter the basically-honest, thus separating the sheep from the goats. Then if you catch a goat, you barbecue him.


"... again, if newspaper management cared, ..."

Sorry, that was sloppy. Obviously the C.C. Times cares, thank goodness. Not sure they all do, though.


Unfortunately, with the advent of blogging, anonymous letters to the editor are probably the least effective way to create the appearance of a grass roots support.

Creating multiple accounts on the numerious blogging websites and forums is trivial. Attempting to seed coversations in multiple social networks is far more effective. The effect is that it erodes the value of blogs and forums.


I think grassroots astroturf is a pretty lame thing to do, but I don't think it's effective in changing people's minds. Part of its ineffectiveness lies in the style in which all these things are written, which gives them away generally. They are very slanted.

The other part of the ineffectiveness lies in the inherent lack of credibility in letters to the editor in general. No matter who is writing them, we've never heard of these people and their opinions don't matter to us as much.

There is also no fact checking, so credibility is a bit questionable. I think they function more as a sort of rah rah for the converted, not as a tool for converting.


"Part of its ineffectiveness lies in the style in which all these things are written, which gives them away generally"

another way to put it: the ones we can recognize don't influence us.

two issues:

1. we aren't likely to recognize all of them (for an analogous situation see Effect Measure's "it is a bit like farming")

2. others are even *less* likely to recognize them.


Craig is right. Most letters to the editor...bogus or real...rank in credibility with the comments of the ninnies that dominate talk radio.

Like the contrived numbers of orchestrated popular opinion campaigns, these serve mostly to reinforce the predispositions of the converted. In my experience, the opposition ignores them, and most of the thoughtful undecided look to more informed and rational sources.


It has always struck me that the paper's ability to determine which letter to run gives them the ultimate final word. A good "Letter to the Editor" writer will know how to get their poiunt across in such a way that the papaer will likely use the letter. The fact that a political PR flack would treat this as an opportunity to buy free papaer space does not amaze me... what amazes me is that the PR flack would brag about it and increase the competition for the preciously limited spaces. Blogs with "comments" increase the capacity for millions of voices to be heard and for good ideas to surface and be propogated. Common voices... "the power of influence" vs "the power of access". More power distributed equally.

milt brewster

If you want to see where these grassroots GOP "activists" learned their trade; visit any political newsgroup on Usenet.


Please do not link to the Contra Costa Times any more. Their registration process is infuriatingly screwed up. This topic is very interesting to me or I wouldn't have wasted the last twenty minutes of my life, trying to jump through their broken "registration" hoops.

I'm really, really tired of looking at Newspaper registration pages by surprise when I click on a web link. I doubt that very many web visitors like me, really want to register with sixty or eighty daily papers around the country, just to read a four column inch story and then get deluged with spam for the next year. It's not your fault -- but these Newspaper registration pages have GOT to GO.


Alex Krupp

milt: Works best as a plug in for Firefox.

milt brewster

OK: I counted to ten, took a deep breath, and went back into the Contra Costa Times "registration page" cold shower.

It took me forty one minutes, including three pages of opt-in spam that I had to kill, to get to your article. That's a lot of clicks.

The astroturf problem is a much bigger problem than this article lets on. We have lots of Republican astro-turfarians creating letters from phoney soldiers in Iraq, phoney Christians in Alabama, phoney Union members in Michigan and from a host of other phoney identities. We have far-right organizations sending phoney letters to the FCC. We have qualified "journalists" being paid to plant opinions -- and we even have shills in the white house press corps. We apparently have no Democrats doing this.

I've even run into these turfbuilders surfing google news. I've come up with identical "letters to the editor" signed with different names, printed in as many as eighteen papers around the country.

I am sorry that no journalist has had the time to surf Lexis-Nexis and collect the details necessary to put all these pieces together.

... and I am also sorry for the tone of this reply -- but the Contra Costa Times really, really made me mad. I am going to go eat some ice cream now.


Alex Krupp

milt: What the hell were you doing for that long? Using bugmenot took less than thirty seconds, and even if you don't have bugmenot then typing the name of the article into google news so that you don't have to register still takes less than a minute.

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