People are so outraged by the Medicare drug program overhaul that they’re writing letters to the editors of many newspapers to complain. And people are equally upset by gay marriage and are writing letters in support of the Marriage Protection Amendment.
But there’s one problem with these two sets of letters: Each set contains largely the same text, taken almost verbatim from automatic letter generators on the sites of political advocacy groups. It’s a practice known as “astroturf” because it is a fake grassroots campaign orchestrated by political professionals who want the appearance of a groundswell of public opinion.
The idea for astroturf is an old one, but it’s more powerful now thanks to online tools that let you write emails to newspapers in a few simple steps. I wrote extensively about astroturf campaigns in the 2004 election cycle for Online Journalism Review — led by the GOP.com and MoveOn.org sites — but was astonished to see the practice alive and kicking almost two years later.
The liberal activist group MoveOn is still up to its old tricks, and got at least six letters published that aped its “Talking Points” on fixing Medicare. You can check out how MoveOn’s letter campaigns work for yourself starting at this page. Eventually you reach a page where MoveOn supplies the talking points but asks that you use your own words. It’s true that many of the letters do include some original content, but they all return to the talking points in some way.
The conservative group, Focus on the Family, got dozens of letters to the editor published using its letter generator that lets you pick and choose pre-written paragraphs to create a Frankenstein-ian letter. When one of the group’s astroturf letters was called out for being deceptive in the Seattle Times, Focus on the Family’s media director Gary Schneeberger wrote back defending the practice.
“If it’s unethical for someone to sign his or her name to a letter largely written and/or edited by someone who writes and/or edits for a living, then where’s the outrage over commentaries that appear on this page under the name of a congressman or senator?” Schneeberger wrote. “Those pieces aren’t written by the congressman or senator him/herself, but by a staff member who helps compile the lawmaker’s convictions into a well-written whole. Ditto any time The Times quotes from a speech by President Bush (who had someone else write it for him). It makes them people who accept help in communicating their ideals in the most effective way possible. There is nothing fake about that.”
Actually there is something very fake about politicians using speech writers, but something even more fake about letter writers — appearing to be just average citizens — using word-for-word talking points from advocacy groups without disclosing that information. Letters editors at newspapers and newspaper readers expect the letters to be original content composed by the writer.
When I was boiling in outrage recently over people plagiarizing canned copy with astroturf letters, a good friend of mine said, “I do it all the time when MoveOn asks me to. I don’t see the problem with putting my name on words I agree with. I don’t have time to write it myself, so I’d rather use their words than not do it.”
I think that’s an opinion held by many who sign their names on automated letters, so I wondered what we as journalists and bloggers can do to educate people about plagiarism and keep letters editors aware of the problem so they don’t get burned. Plagiarism scandals have hit the New York Times, USA Today and various other news organizations in the past few years — and Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan just lost her book contract over stealing content from other books.
Writer/consultant Dave Mastio has started an informal AstroTurf Project on his InOpinion blog. Mastio has been a letters editor for USA Today, and a reporter for the Detroit News before starting his own consulting firm to help bring fresh new ideas to opinion pages.
Though Mastio is a conservative and a former speech writer for the Bush Administration, he’s disgusted by astroturf on both sides of the aisle and has vowed to help become an online resource for letters editors who might not have the time to check the authenticity of each letter they get. The following is an edited version of our recent conversation.
Mark Glaser: Tell me why you started doing the AstroTurf Project. What are your goals with it?
Dave Mastio: I started writing a blog about editorial pages and innovation as part of [my new consulting] company, to make a name for myself. I joined the National Congress of Editorial Writers, and I joined the [email] listserv. I started getting these notices with people asking ‘is this letter astroturf?’ I had a sudden flashback to my days of doing this with USA Today. And I thought, we can do better than a listserv.
There has to be a way to fight back more, and I’m groping my way towards that. The first stage is building an audience of people who are interested in this phenomenon, and the second stage is starting to get some involved in calling out examples of them and getting newspapers to run letters about it. One of our big triumphs so far is the Seattle Times [running] a letter from someone who was alerted to the astroturf [from Focus on the Family] through my site.
Glaser: I always thought that an online database or a wiki, where people could collaboratively share information, would be helpful for letters editors who don’t want to get caught running astroturf letters.
Mastio: That’s kind of what I would like to start. If anyone sends something to me, I will put it on my site and send it around but I haven’t gotten very many good leads that way yet. It’s going to take time. Right now we’re getting about 2,000 visits per day on this, which is more than when we started the AstroTurf Project.
If you read the site, some of the interesting ideas come from the readers. One reader suggested ‘astroturf judo’ — people going and using the automatically programmed letters generator and sending letters to the opposite effect. It’s something I’m thinking about doing, immediately after I see a letter-generator. I would go to people on the opposite side of the issue and have them get their activists to turn the meaning around. If [advocacy groups] find that letter generators don’t result in what they want, they’ll stop.
In defense of the letters editors out there, they are aware of this and are working really hard to keep it out of their papers. But their efforts are totally defensive, and we have to figure out a way to use the Internet to go on the offensive, and make there be a high cost for doing this.
What you’re doing with the sock puppets is exactly the same phenomenon. If we can’t trust that we’re talking to each other in really good community spaces like the comments section of the blog or letters section of the paper — these are things that we shouldn’t let be taken away from us.
I imagine that you and I would disagree on possibly every political issue we could talk about, but it’s totally irrelevant. We should be able to talk to each other without worrying about who’s paying whom.
Glaser: I agree with you on that point. I remember that the Boston Globe was duped by astroturf some years ago. I talked to the Boston Globe letters editor back then, but I saw that they just ran another astroturf letter. So even if you know about it, it’s hard to avoid.
Mastio: You can’t be on top of it all the time. The first few letters that arrive, you don’t notice the pattern, so the first few get through. There’s still a lot of letters getting through.
Another angle on this…there are consulting companies that provide the technology for doing this. So my next point of attack is to point out who these companies are and say, ‘If you are someone who buys something from a plagiarism profiteer, you are part of it.’ So I’m going to name big journalism outfits and big advocacy outfits that aren’t doing this but are customers of companies that do.
I think a good analogy would be: It’s OK to be a gun owner, but you’re contributing to the problem if you buy your gun from a place with a bad reputation, that’s slipshod. So it’s OK to employ a PR firm, but if you employ a PR firm that’s unethical — even if the PR firm doesn’t do anything unethical for you — you are part of the problem. I’m hoping that that point of attack might make a company or two rethink participation.
Glaser: When I was railing about this astroturf phenomenon, a friend of mine said, ‘Yeah, I’ve done that for MoveOn. I don’t see the problem with it because I agree with what they’re saying.’
Mastio: When I first heard that, I was taken aback, because as a journalist, we just don’t do that. The way you talk to someone like your friend is to say, ‘If you knew that a letter to the editor was actually written by insert-advocacy-group-they-hate, would you feel like that’s the right thing to do? If you read something written by this group, but with the name of your neighbor or friend, would you feel like you had been tricked?’ The answer to that question is yes.
Most people who sign these things don’t think about what they’re doing. They see these things coming from a name they trust. Right wingers trust James Dobson [of Focus on the Family] because he has been a good conservative leader for decades. How could he possibly lead us to do something that’s unethical? The same thing with MoveOn. MoveOn is fighting the good fight against the insidious Bush Administration.
Glaser: What about letters like the ones via MoveOn that mix the canned Talking Points with original commentary from the letter writers?
Mastio: Beyond the plagiarism, the fundamental issue is the hiding of the role of MoveOn or Focus on the Family. That is what deceives readers. It doesn’t matter if the astroturf is 40% of the letter or all of it.
Glaser: It would be great if there were some tool — outside of Google News and web searches — to match all the letter generators to all the letters editors so they’re aware of the campaigns.
Mastio: I’ve signed up for a bunch of them, and will post about them as they happen. Hopefully some techie person who understands the inner workings of the Internet will see this and have some ideas on something that could be used to detect the letter generators early without the editors having to join all the potential advocacy groups.
Another idea that I’m kicking around, and I’m going to have lunch with lawyers this week, is to get the newspapers to put up a letters policy that states that any organization that does this kind of stuff has really bought an ad, and start billing them. Almost all these places who do [astroturf] also buy newspaper ads. So you can say to them, ‘You can buy a full page ad for the election next week, as soon as you pay for the six letters that you got in for free. Here’s a bill for $6,000.” There is an element of business fraud in this, and I want to talk to someone who knows commercial law. This is a valuable piece of property that’s been stolen.
Glaser: I remember GOP.com had a big letter-writing effort on its site in 2004. They were a big pioneer.
Mastio: They still have their [letter-generating] engine up there. All it needs is copy up there to come pouring out. I’ve taken a close look at Congressional websites and I can’t name any that are doing astroturf campaigns. I gleefully went through every Democratic campaign for Senate — sometimes my bias does show through — and I was shocked that none of them did it. I was sure I would find one, but I didn’t.
Glaser: I wonder if there’s a difference between people running for office and advocacy groups pushing a cause. Perhaps people don’t want the stain on them for doing this. Who knows why that is?
Mastio: Do you think the astroturf campaigns hurt Bush in 2004?
Glaser: That’s a good question. I don’t think it hurt him; he won the election. The fact that people are still doing it is a sign of success. I wonder if we took a poll, whether people would think astroturf was bad. I wonder if overall they’re like my friend, thinking it’s a good thing because it supports a cause they believe in.
Mastio: You could show people side-by-side what a good way of doing it and a bad way is. The Hillary Clinton website has a good way of sending letters to the editor, it’s effortless, but you have to express your own feelings. You can make it easy, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with lowering the barriers to entry — that’s what the Internet is supposed to be about. But lowering them so far so that people don’t even have to write something is going too far.