[ Friday, May 23, 2003 ]

The ‘turf hit Time

Maybe the GOP should compose a letter explaining the importance of being free and independent thinkers and then give it to all its team leaders to sign, so they can show what free and independent thinkers they are by supporting the statement without question.

Then maybe Time magazine will run those opinions in its ‘Letters’ section.

Time already ran one such letter for the Republican Party in its May 26, 2003 issue. The letter to the editor read as follows:

Creating jobs and fostering economic growth need to be our No. 1 national priorities. President Bush recognizes this and has delivered a jobs-and-growth plan that will create 1.4 million new jobs in the next two years. Twelve Senate Democrats understood the important impact tax relief has on growing our economy when Bush's tax plan was passed into law. Why are Senate Democrats ignoring their previous support for tax reduction and its economic impact? They should line up behind the President and give the economy the boost it sorely needs. Cutting taxes is the right thing to do to grow the economy.

It was signed by Thomas J. Stokes of Fredonia, NY. The name is irrelevant, though, since basically the exact same words have appeared in the Union-Tribune (San Diego, CA), News Examiner (Gallatin, Tennessee), Daily Times (Glasgow, Kentucky), Sun-News (Las Cruces, New Mexico), and numerous other publications all under different names. The practice is called “astroturfing” - as in a fake grassroots movement.

And it is a practice fully supported by the GOP.

Basically, the group encourages people to become team leaders at this website. Then, among other things, members are encouraged to just add their names to prewritten letters and send them to newspapers as if they wrote them themselves. Call it what you want, it’s lying.

It’s something that could easily fool even well-trained editorial page compilers, who assume an individual would have enough self-respect to not just let other people speak for him in such a fashion.

Granted, the Republican Party is far from the only organization that provides prewritten letters for people to sign. Many organizations - like Amnesty International - provide prewritten letters for people to use in its human rights campaigns. AI provides letters for people to just sign and send to individuals responsible for particular human rights violations.

Many political groups - covering the entire philosophical spectrum - encourage people to do the same thing with letters to their elected officials. Even though some people have good intentions, it’s still a lazy practice. People should at least take the time to write: “Mr. Representative, I support the current bill to allow whatever. Please vote for it.”

The main difference between those practices and astroturfing is that few organizations would even consider encouraging people to claim the work as their own and publish it with their name attached. When a dictator receives several thousand identical copies of an AI letter, the individual understands what happened. The same goes for a congressman that receives multiple copies of an opinion letter.

However, that is not the case with individual letters sent to newspapers. Such letters are based around deception. They lead people to believe the individual wrote them. And that is the key difference - publication. People who forward prewritten e-mail opinions to officials never intend the letters for publication. They know - at most - the letter will just end up in a pro or con pile. More than likely, it will just end up deleted from the e-mail account.

People who send astroturf do intend the letters for publication, though.

By sending a letter to an editor and signing a name, an individual basically states those are his words, his thoughts, and his beliefs. In the case of astroturfing, that’s a lie.


Irregular Times

Online Journalism Review
Dave Sutor [12:43 PM]