Web Informant #314, 29 January 2002:

Beware of Op-ed Astroturf campaigns





It was bound to happen. The grass-roots lobbying organizations have figured out their own take on mass customization, and are now locked in a new technological war with the editorial page editors across the country. Blame it all on the Web.


The technique has been labeled "Op-ed Astroturf" by several media watchers. It refers to letters to the editor that appear to be written by their signers, but are actually assembled by clever Web sites operated by the lobbyists.


What is interesting is that lobbyists from all walks of political life are using the technique. They send out email blasts to their mailing lists, and the emails contain links to the sites where a member can go and with a few clicks of the mouse assemble a customized letter to the editor. Some of the sites even automatically select your local newspaper, based on your ZIP code or other identifying information. Others are just as sophisticated, making it easy for members to send "their" opinions to specific TV, radio, or print outlets in a specific area.


The lobbying organizations see this as goodness. I don't, which you would expect coming from a curmudgeonly magazine editor. I like my readers' comments to actually be penned (or typed, or thought by) the actual readers, thank you very much. I also think this confuses the whole notion of plagiarism and copying work, something that I as a teacher have had to confront first-hand. How do these Astroturf campaigns differ from students who turn in homework copied from a Web site as their own? Granted, letters to the editor aren't being graded for high school or college credit, but the whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth.


Now, organized letter-writing campaigns -- both to newspapers and to our Congressional representatives -- have been around since shortly after the birth of democracy. Heck, I have written a few myself (and even had some printed in local papers, including The Grey Lady herself.) These campaigns are a cherished tool of the lobbyists, and when I worked for Congress I got to see first hand the volume of mail that would arrive on the Hill each day from the public. But the Astroturf campaign takes things to a new level of complexity. How can you be sure that a letter really was written by its author?


The best way to fight technology is with other technology, and so op/ed editors haven't just gotten mad, they have gotten even. The editors now have their own mailing list to circulate potential Astroturf items to see if anyone else has seen the particular letter. And some op/ed editors are getting more adept at using Internet search tools to look for particular word combinations as well.


Of course, this is just the beginning of an arms race. As the tools to detect the Astroturf get better, the methods that the lobbyists use also leapfrog the detectors. Lately the lobbying organizations have put together more sophisticated sites that allow members to mix and match their paragraphs to customize a letter, so that no two are exactly the same. Does that raise the same issues with respect to misrepresentation? What if the letter that is assembled closely matches what the person actually feels? So what if they didn't actually "write" the letter? They did click on the selection of paragraphs and put it together? How is that any different from what I do in my day job when I edit someone's copy for publication?


Well, there is a difference: the author's byline is on their copy when we print it, not mine as the page editor.


You'll have to take my word that I actually wrote the above essay. It is not assembled from any Web site, and that I did type in each and every word as they came out of my head. Maybe we need some kind of third-party certification that one's words are really from one self. In the meantime, be glad you aren't a magazine editor in these difficult times.