Monday, February 3, 2003

Astoturfing for prizes!

The Boston Globe’s ombudsman, Christine Chinlund, reports that:

Four times since mid-October the Globe has unwittingly published letters that were written not by the local folks who signed them, but by the Republican National Committee. The same letters, all praising President Bush, also appeared verbatim (or nearly so) in papers across the country, each signed by a person in that paper's area.

A PR campaign using these letters is known as “astroturfing.” They’re pre-written letters sent out by shills from around the country to media outlets, and the GOP isn’t alone in doing it. Nor does everyone agree that it is unethical. For example:

Michael McCurry, a former Clinton press secretary, finds no fault with the practice. McCurry, whose company offers technical support to client Internet users, tells critics of the letters: ''Grow up and join the Internet Age.''

Meanwhile, the “ website … rewards those who send letters with points that can be converted into gifts, ‘from coolers to mousepads.’” That’s not much of a reward for selling your credibility. At least McCurry gets real money for selling what’s left of his.

UPDATE: The Angry Cyclist has a slightly different take on the column:

Does anyone else think this would have never hit the Globe's radar screen if this was done by the DemocRATS?

It is unfortunate that GOP-authored letters were published as individual works. I applaud the effort to keep it from happening again. The Globe is blessed with readers who are smart, literate, and passionate about politics. The letters page should be reserved for their heartfelt words, not those of special interests seeking to sway public opinion.

From the mouth of Christine Chinlund, impartial and unbiased Boston Globe ombudsman - The Republican Party is a 'special interest(s)' who are not 'smart, literate, and passionate about politics', hell bent on a deceitful but hopefully quixotic quest to 'sway public opinion'.

UPDATE: Bill Dennis see astroturfing from a more populist perspective:

there is something about the complaints that strikes me as fundamentally elitist. Professional politicians hire professional speech writers and all sorts of spinmasters. No one accuses them of plagiarism, yet that is the charge some critics of astroturfing level at those who send these letters to their editor of their local newspaper. Bull. These letters to the editor were written with the understanding someone else would sign their name to them. Joe Blow citizens should be afforded the same courtesy given to the powerful.

If newspapers really want to stop astroturf letters from dirtying their op-ed pages, a few simple steps can be followed. First, no letter should be printed without verification. That's just basic journalism. It prevents someone from submitting a letter in someone else's name. A newspaper worried about astroturfing can not only get verification for who sent the letter in, they can ask the person submitted the letter if they are in fact the author. If the letter appears elsewhere, ban the letter writer.

Having authored Op-Eds for other people I have some sympathy for Bill's argument. Why should a different standard apply to the letters to the editor than to the Op-Eds? Or is the problem not so much that the letters are authored by professionals, as that the letters aren't unique?
posted at 2:09 PM

Junk science in the service of politics
Iain Murray takes a look at Why They Hate Us, “a new study from two professors at Boston University that supposedly demonstrates a deeply-held dislike of American culture among young people around the world (including the United States)”

He finds that, “There are two major problems with this study of teenagers' attitudes: the methodology and the logic. That doesn’t leave much.” The study makes no pretense at obtaining a good statistical basis from which to draw it’s conclusions – conclusions that result in such odd results as American teenagers rating themselves as negatively as the Pakistanis rated them, and much more negatively than did teenagers from Italy, Argentina and Nigeria.

Even the logic used to arrive at the study’s conclusion is defective:

…teenagers want so much to see American culture, which they despise, that they break their countries' laws to obtain it. Presumably so they can tut-tut and remark how shameful it all is. This argument isn't even circular, it's inherently self-contradictory. This study and the conclusions drawn from it are meaningless in every sense.

Meaningless, yes. But it’ll be cited over and over again by those whose agenda the study furthers. Whatever happened to peer reviews?
posted at 1:07 PM

Rand Simberg lays out a good case for trimming the manned space program
Rand Simberg admits that science isn’t “a good justification for a manned space program. It's simply too expensive, compared to all other federal science programs, particularly the way that NASA goes about it. But more to the point, by focusing on this purpose of the space program, and excluding all others, it allows people to ask questions like ‘why don't we do it with robots?’” And it’s the robot part that rubs him the wrong way.

For Simberg, it’s about becoming a “space-faring nation and planet.” You know, establishing “off-world settlements”, “A new leisure industry, with resorts in orbit or on the moon” and “an orbital infrastructure that can both mine useful asteroids and comets, and deflect errant ones about to wipe out civilization.” Oh my!

In other words, it’s all about allowing a handful of people to play Buck Rogers on the public dime. There’s an enormous opportunity cost to spending tens of billions of dollars a year on NASA, and if this is the best justification they can come up with for the current space shuttle/space station extravaganza, then let’s kill it now and start using the money in a cost-effective way to increase our understanding of the solar system and the cosmos.

If Club Moon can find private investors willing to drop tens of billions of dollars to establish “A new leisure industry, with resorts in orbit or on the moon,” then that’s their business. Just don’t ask Joe taxpayer to foot the bill.

UPDATE: Here's an excellent policy position statement from the Cato Institute.

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