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It's a cheap form of propaganda: now they are offering prizes to people who trick newspapers into publishing fake letters.

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.

Interestingly, most of the folks who join us for these gatherings are surprised to learn of "e-mail factories" and can't imagine trying to pass off someone else's words as their own.

There was a time when the Detroit Free Press rejected e-mail correspondence. A former editor thought it was slap-dash stuff, too hard to verify as genuine, and too likely to crowd out "real writers" who put time, effort, and postage into their commentary.

That policy could not survive as e-mail quickly overwhelmed "snail mail" as the preferred option for correspondence.

But the surge of e-mail brought the problem of "astroturf," which grew quickly during the 2000 election campaign, before many editorial pages started to recognize this stuff for what it was.

It didn't take the computer wizards long to figure out that people who were checking in with campaign websites could be invited to "send a letter to the editor" Further, with just a few clicks, they could be provided with a text, a form to include their name and address, and the e-mail address of their local paper. Unfortunately for the operatives, they had no way to prevent two or more loyalists from choosing the same letter, which gave the schemes away as the campaign wore on.

NCEW has provided an invaluable service by posting turf or suspected turf on its listserv, alerting editorial pages across the country to this unoriginal material.

(It's not hard to spot, really. The format is almost always the same, with none of the quirks of individual e-mail. There's a Democratic site that produces turf that inevitably arrives with quotation marks changed to the word "quote." Nobody writes like that.)

But as detection has gotten better, the scammers have gotten sharper, too. Sometimes, the phony letters are on password-protected portions of the campaign websites, making it harder for inquiring editors to trace them back to a common source. There appear to be some distribution systems, too, that prevent the same letter from appearing more than once in a given region. The websites offer cut-and-paste options, too, with various sentences or issues so users can "build" an ostensibly unique letter.

While political campaigns still generate most of the e-mail, and Republicans have kept up a steady stream of pro-Bush "astroturf" for the past four years, this practice has spread to many causes. I was most recently flooded with hundreds of identical e-mails urging a change in federal regulations to allow the further expansion of high-definition TV. The first e-mail set off an alarm because a.) nothing has been in the news recently about this issue and nothing in the pages of our paper, and b.) this did not strike me as the kind of issue that inspires citizens, unprompted, to dash off a letter. My instincts were confirmed just minutes later by the second and third identical e-mails.

Aside from publishing, repeatedly, our rule that all letters must be original, and even sending that as a reply to a turfer, I don't know what editorial pages can really do about this stuff, except not publish it. We must continue to use the very system that generates turf to circulate suspected items of same. But don't look for the originators to become discouraged. The publication of just one such letter by any editorial page anywhere inspires them to carry on. After all, it's a remarkably cheap form of propaganda.

All it costs is some "cool stuff" once in a while.

Ron Dzwonkowski is editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press, E-mail
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Title Annotation:Masthead Symposium
Author:Dzwonkowski, Ron
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2004
Previous Article:Turf: a threat, or just a little sport?
Next Article:A look at the perpetrators: the list of interest groups encouraging "astroturf" is as long as the list of interest groups.

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