Debasing the debate: the Ellie Light astroturfing case

Patterico has a good description of a deceitful propaganda effort in Newspaper Editors Begin to Address Pro-Obama Astroturfing. The case involves letters to the editor. Someone noticed essentially the same letter in a number of newspapers and did a bit of investigating. What makes this case interesting is that it is unusual in its attempt to avoid the usual mass-mail campaigns by keeping the distribution light and falsifying the sources.

The recent SCOTUS decision about corporations and the first amendment is also pertinent. It appears, from the nature of the letter writing campaign, that there is an organized group behind the effort. An organized group of people is the fundamental nature of a corporation. While the SCOTUS decided that such groups could voice their opinion, it did not say that they could do so behind a veil. Here it appears that the same people who were so dismayed about the SCOTUS decision are also the ones behind this mail campaign and they do hide behind a veil to disguise the source and nature of their efforts.

Clearly, the credibility of the letters is undercut once the reader realizes that the letter writer is passing along other people’s thoughts verbatim. It is indeed plagiarism, although authorized, because it is not “quoting” with attribution but rather disguising another’s writing as one’s own. …

… it’s allotted space given to someone to try to persuade. Large political organizations motivate people to do this because it works. And it works with the element of deception.

It’s a small deception, to be sure. Venial, not mortal. But deception nonetheless. …

Finally, I have received all sorts of recent tips and theories as to who “Ellie Light” might be. This may well be useful information, if we learn it — but I urge people not to get too carried away with that question, such that they lose sight of the bigger picture. Which is the need to work to eliminate deception from our political discourse.

Transparency in politics was a major election campaign point of the election winner. This is yet another case where the expression of ideology and the behavior in practice don’t seem to mesh together very well.

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