It's a Cheap Form of Propaganda: Now They Are Offering Prizes to People Who Trick Newspapers into Publishing Fake Letters

Article excerpt

Making my umpteenth pass of the day through my e-mail inbox, deleting spam, moving legitimate letters to the proper slot, and discarding the anonymous rants, I noticed a few missives from "Kyle," no other identifier.

In the message field, each of the messages urged, "Re-Elect Bush in 2004." The text was identical: "New job figures and other recent economic data show that America's economy is strong and getting stronger--and that the president's jobs and growth plan is working. The Labor Department announced...." and so on for about two hundred words.

Obvious "astroturf"--the editorial page jargon for fake grassroots letter writing made possible by e-mail. I dumped them without acknowledgment.

But on my next pass, there was Kyle again, this time with more than twenty copies of the same letter. Taking the risk of putting my e-mail address into who-knows-how-many "spam" loops, I replied, simply saying, "Please desist with this repetitive, formatted e-mail. We don't publish such stuff."

In just a few minutes came a sheepish "sorry" e-mail from Kyle, in which he explained that he was sending out e-mails in hopes of getting "cool stuff" from the Bush campaign. Kyle, a teenager, described this "cool stuff" as windbreakers, hats, T-shirts, and such, all touting the Bush re-election. He said prizes were being awarded for e-mails sent and e-mails published by newspapers as letters to the editor.

Kyle, from suburban Detroit, said he had already sent fourteen thousand letters using lists provided by a GOP campaign website.

I doubt any will be published, because they are so plainly unoriginal and because young, naive Kyle was sending multiple copies to the same papers.

But the exchange was enlightening. Once, political operatives just provided the text and links for fake letters. Now they are offering prizes to people who trick newspapers into publishing them. Kyle happened to be a Bush backer, but Democrats and many other special interest groups are waging "astroturf" campaigns, too, and the e-mail volume seems to be getting heavier even as newspapers get sharper at spotting these frauds.

Any editorial page editor on the job since the mid-'90s can attest to e-mail as both boon and bane. It has greatly multiplied reader correspondence. People who just a few years ago would never have dreamed of putting pen to paper to write a letter to the editor now think nothing of turning to the keyboard and firing off an e-mail about some current event or the day's lead editorial. In many cases, the reader is already at the keyboard, checking out the paper online and taking advantage of one-click links that preclude even screwing up an e-mail address.

On the upside, gone are the days when newspapers may have fretted about having enough mail to fill the allotted space or resorting to the use of long, boring letters in response to other letters. There's never a shortage of material now. And because the reaction comes in more quickly, the letters are more timely. Many papers post non-published letters on their websites, too, engaging e-writers in an even broader discussion.

E-mail is easier for editors to answer, too, when the correspondent has just a question or comment not intended for publication.

Twice a year, we invite a dozen or so letter writers whose comments have been published during the past six months to visit the Free Press for an evening meeting with the editorial board. Several writers have confessed that sending e-mail has become something of an addiction, encouraged by occasional publication. Many, too, have emerged as pretty good writers, skilled at making one good point well in a brief space, which they see as the key to getting printed. …