Turf or Astroturf? A Look at the Scope of the "Canned Letter" Phenomenon
Reader, Bill, The Masthead
Several years ago, the "astroturf" phenomenon was a big deal for editorial page editors across the nation, resulting in several commentaries and news reports about this high-tech wrinkle in the ages-old letter-writing campaign. Two high-profile cases even made the news wires--a series of identical letters signed by different soldiers serving in Iraq, and several similar letters that originated from the Bush/Cheney campaign website.
I decided to spend a year studying the phenomenon, particularly with the goal of determining just how far "astroturf" had spread, and, more importantly, to get a sense of how special-interest groups view letters to the editor in their advocacy campaigns.
For the study, I drew a random sample of two hundred Web pages in which special-interest groups offered letter-writing tips to supporters. I used the three most popular search engines at the time--Google, Yahoo!, and MSN. com--and alternated among them to draw the sample. Each website was then analyzed for a variety of attributes to get an overall sense of how those groups promote the use of letters, including (but not exclusive to) "astroturf."
The findings were both surprising and encouraging (if you're predisposed to seeing the glass as half full). First off, "astroturf" is an infrequent tactic--just 15.5 percent provided text and explicitly encouraged supporters to copy that text in their "letters." An additional 18 percent provided text that could be copied, but did not explicitly encourage copying. A few groups--6.5 percent of the total--provided text but discouraged copying. The remaining 60 percent provided no text to copy and no mention of whether or not to copy text in letters.
Of course, that means that 33.5 percent of such groups could facilitate "astroturf" (assuming some supporters might copy sample letters without being told to do so). That's a sobering thought for those who think "astroturf" is a spreading problem. Still, the clear majority of those special interest groups provided tips for their supporters to write letters while either discouraging "astroturf" or providing no means for writers to "copy and paste."
What should be encouraging, however, is what those groups did recommend, as the findings read like a standard letters policy you might find on a good editorial page:
* 65.5 percent urged supporters to keep letters short, usually in the two hundred to five hundred word range.
* 57 percent urged supporters to sign their names, and 41.5 percent told letter writers to expect a call from the newspaper to verify authorship.
* 48 percent urged supporters to respond to articles or editorials that have already appeared in the newspaper. …