On the lookout for fake grass roots


Everyone has heard of “fake news,” especially in the past couple of years. Less well known to the public is the bane of every opinion page editor’s existence: fake letters to the editor.

Everyone has heard of “fake news,” especially in the past couple of years. Less well known to the public is the bane of every opinion page editor’s existence: fake letters to the editor.

Maybe "fake" is too strong a word. The letters I'm talking about are real enough, and the sentiments they express are shared by many, including the readers who send them in. But those readers didn't write them. And we don't print them.

My colleagues and I, who labor daily to fill the opinion pages of newspapers large and not-so-large, include in the mix of viewpoints letters from readers. The letter to the editor is a tradition as old as newspapers themselves, and a valuable one. It allows readers to have their say on the issues of the day alongside the syndicated columnists and the paper's own editorial writers.

It's probably not surprising that interest groups trying to sway public opinion see the letters columns as a low-cost way to get their word out. And the advent of email and the internet made it simple.

Visit the website of most any activist group, and chances are you'll find the organization's legislative agenda and an invitation to "take action." The action page often will offer pre-written letters to the editor, presented as "talking points," on the issues in question. All you have to do is enter your ZIP code, and the site will provide your local newspaper's email address. Copy and paste the "talking points," fill in your name and address, and off the letter goes to your local editor.

This technique actually started with letters to members of Congress urging their vote for or against pieces of legislation. When congressional staffers started seeing multiple copies of the same letter showing up with different constituents' names on them, they coined a term for the phenomenon: "astroturf," meaning "fake grass roots."

As you can imagine, astroturf letters carry a lot less weight with lawmakers than letters from constituents who make the effort to actually write one themselves. The same is true of letters to the editor.

Astroturf is not a liberal or conservative phenomenon. Its users span the political spectrum.

We started seeing significant numbers of astroturf letters during George W. Bush's re-election campaign in 2004. His campaign website generated letter after letter informing us that "President Bush has a plan" — for energy policy, for education, for tax reform — you get the idea.

Another frequent offender was the anti-meat movement. Before every major holiday that involves food, letters would arrive urging readers to have a "meatless Thanksgiving" or enjoy a "plant-based Christmas dinner." But the person who supposedly wrote the letter did not exist, the address turned out to be a vacant lot and the phone number was toll-free.

It's not that we don't want to publish these points of view. It's that they are not the honest expression of opinion in the original words of a reader of this newspaper. Those we're happy to print.

A professional writer who submits someone else's words with his or her name on them is guilty of plagiarism. College students who turn in papers they didn't write get failing grades, or worse. Letters to the editor should be no different.

So opinion editors spend more time than we would like making sure the letters we print are real. And we compare notes.

So if you want to express your opinion in a letter to the editor, fire away — in your own words.

— Reach Editorial Page Editor Gary Nelson at gnelson@mailtribune.com.

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