Astroturfing examined…

The New York Times examines the phenomenon of “astroturfing”–creating the illusion of grassroots support through canned letters to the editor sent by e-mail. It’s a popular technique:

Jim Dyke, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said the committee is proud of its outreach efforts. “You want to make it easy for them to participate,” he said. “That is a good thing.”

Lisa Boyce, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, said, “If an editor receives 10 letters that may be the same, they at least know there are 10 people that are concerned about the issue and would take the time to send a letter.”

Editors, on the other hand, are not amused.

Just how effective are such letters in moving public opinion? There’s no way to tell without conducting some rather difficult research. I think the best that can be said is this: Letters to the editor provide individuals a public venue for addressing their communities. Wow…big revelation there, huh? But that’s it. I know of no data that speaks to the political effectiveness of letters to the editor. So astroturfing is a matter of pure speculation.

Today in class we discussed a letter that appeared in this morning’s Kansas City Star (Affirmative Action by Matt Houser). We have begun the unit on the first canon of rhetoric–invention. I was using the letter to demonstrate the difference between the syllogism and the entheymeme. The letter contained a glaring lapse of logic–a problem for a syllogism but not necessarily so for an enthymeme.

Further, I was trying to illustrate that short letters to the editor are a poor genre to present an appeal to logic; they are just too short to adequately cover the necessary premises and definitions. Rather, ethical and pathetic appeals “work” best. If I am correct, then that means the best letters rely on appeals to emotion and authority–not well-ordered propositions. To me, this is evidence that, perhaps, letters to the editor may be politically effective because, as I contend, hearts and minds are moved far more effectively by appeals to emotion and character (if this weren’t so, television commercials, political and otherwise, would be useless).

I think we should keep a close eye on astroturfing because these canned letters will clue us in to the appeals that partisans and interest groups believe will work with the general public. The more we know, the more we may understand and/or resist.