Fear the Faux Bloggers

 

A buddy passed along an interesting article from the Boston Globe today about faux bloggers posing as part of the genuine netroots community, only to be found out as paid operatives.  Okay, not a whole lot of suprises, but our buddy got a big kick out of it because of the recent paranoid-psychotic comments from the McCain campain about us being a “sleeper blog cell.”(see the front page of The Shot)

Come to find out, the culprits in the article were none other than paid McCain operatives.  

WASHINGTON — Erick Erickson has been running the popular blog Redstate.com long enough to know what his readers’ postings sound like: red-meat conservative rhetoric served up with a little dash of populist anger.

So when postings from an unknown writer on the site showed up praising Senator John McCain — one of the site’s least-popular Republicans for his deviations from hard-core conservative orthodoxy — Erickson thought he smelled a rat.

Or maybe a sock puppet, shill, or a troll — Web slang for bloggers who pretend to be grass-roots political commentators but instead are paid public relations agents.

The author of the pro-McCain articles on Redstate.com, Erickson determined after a Google search, was a Michigan political operative whose firm worked for McCain’s political action committee.

Go figure….read the rest of the article below the flip.

Political Bloggers fear Publicists will infiltrate their sites 

WASHINGTON — Erick Erickson has been running the popular blog Redstate.com long enough to know what his readers’ postings sound like: red-meat conservative rhetoric served up with a little dash of populist anger.

So when postings from an unknown writer on the site showed up praising Senator John McCain — one of the site’s least-popular Republicans for his deviations from hard-core conservative orthodoxy — Erickson thought he smelled a rat.

Or maybe a sock puppet, shill, or a troll — Web slang for bloggers who pretend to be grass-roots political commentators but instead are paid public relations agents.

The author of the pro-McCain articles on Redstate.com, Erickson determined after a Google search, was a Michigan political operative whose firm worked for McCain’s political action committee.

With big corporations now hiring public relations firms to pay fake bloggers to plant favorable opinions of the businesses online, many political bloggers are concerned that candidates, too, will hire people to pretend to be grass-roots citizens expressing views.

“This is going to happen more and more, and blogs are going to have to be vigilant,” Erickson said in an interview. “I expect there will be commenters jumping in and trying to build negative campaigns to cause scandal for the other side. That’s my fear.”

The Internet has already become a prime target for such manipulation. Tom Rosenstiel , the director of Project for Excellence in Journalism , said the growing influence of political blogs, combined with the relative ease of posting negative information anonymously, make them “irresistible for dirty tricks and attack politics.”

“Candidates, history shows, will do anything they can to win. The only downside to a candidate is getting caught,” he said. But the downside for blogs could be far greater, because the blogs’ credibility rests on the idea that they represent unvarnished grass-roots opinion.

Public relations agents are attracted to the blogosphere because Web comments “can fly under the radar and have no fingerprints attached to them. They have the impression of being citizen-based and independent, and if the conditions are right, what’s in the blogs can influence the mainstream press and have a real echo effect on a campaign dialogue,” Rosenstiel said. “I think the impact is going to be that when the 2008 campaign is over, blogging may be damaged.”

For now, bloggers must be their own police. Participating in online political discussions without disclosing financial ties to a candidate would violate the unwritten rules of the blogosphere, website operators said.

“Campaigns and organizations promote their candidates and efforts, obviously,” Markos Moulitsas , the founder of DailyKos.com , a prominent liberal blog, said in an e-mailed response. “If they do it openly, it’s well accepted. If they use sock puppets ( create aliases to hide their identities), then it’s a big deal.”

For the presidential campaigns, however, the stakes may prove too high to resist. About 15 percent of Americans get their political news online, according to a January study by the Pew Foundation, but political consultants said that percentage was higher among the party faithful who knock on doors, attend rallies, and make campaign donations. A good reputation among activists who get their news and views online, political strategists say, will be a crucial asset in the early stages of the primaries.

“You need to engage them as if they are any other powerful constituency,” said Peter Greenberger of New Media Strategies, an Arlington, Va.-based consulting firm that works with candidates and corporations to improve their image on the Internet.

Greenberger said his firm was not working for any 2008 candidates, but had turned away requests by some candidates to woo activists through online “astroturf” campaigns. Astroturf, in political parlance, refers to campaigns organized by public relations firms to create a false image of grass-roots support.

Meanwhile, most presidential campaigns have hired consultants to promote their candidates to bloggers. One candidate, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, came under attack for allegedly insensitive statements that had been made by two bloggers he hired. They eventually resigned.

In the redstate.com case involving the Michigan operative working for a McCain consultant, the senator’s campaign said it played no role in the posting.

“Obviously the general rule of thumb is complete transparency and disclosure,” said Patrick Hynes , McCain’s consultant for blogger outreach.

But Hynes, a New Hampshire-based author of a conservative blog called Ankle Biting Pundits , did not initially disclose his own contract with McCain when it began in April 2006. He later apologized and said he now always identifies his McCain affiliation in conversations with fellow bloggers.

“Basically, when I call and pitch stories to bloggers — and a lot of these people are my personal friends — I say I’m calling from the McCain organization. At this point, most of them already know that,” he said.

Given the anonymity of the Internet, though, political websites are vulnerable to manipulation, as other recent episodes demonstrated.

In 2006, a staff member for former representative Charles Bass , a Republican from New Hampshire, was caught posing as a Democrat and writing negative comments about Bass’s Democratic opponent. Bass lost to Democrat Paul Hodes. In Canada last fall, online attacks against a candidate for leader of the Liberal Party were linked to a political consulting firm employed by one of his rivals.

Bloggers and campaign consultants said the fear of getting caught should be a major disincentive for campaigns considering the use of underhanded tactics. Many blogs check IP, or Internet protocol, addresses to catch people opening multiple accounts, one of the ploys used by public relations firms to give the appearance of widespread support for a candidate or position. In addition, blog commenters are quick to accuse others of deception and led the effort to expose the deceptive posts in the Hodes-Bass race.

“The blogger community very rightfully protects its authenticity and its ability to get to the truth without filtering it,” said Saul Anuzis , chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, who recently started a blog on the party’s website.

“A lot of people like the anonymity so they can say what they want,” Anuzis said. “But I think there is an ethical line crossed when someone is actually being paid to sound like they’re not being paid.” 

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