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September 10, 2006

Astroturf and disinformation: some guy named Ron Goodden
Posted by Teresa at 03:40 PM *

Dave’s Wibblings has spotted a piece of professionally slick right-wing disinformation, signed “Ron Goodden”, in the South China Morning News:

When I see a letter from a westerner who doesn’t live in Hong Kong in a Hong Kong newspaper, I always wonder why they’re writing it. When the subject matter of the letter has nothing to do with Hong Kong and everything to do with US internal affairs, I wonder why it even gets published.

A Google Search for “Ron Goodden” turns up almost nothing but letters to editors pushing various GOP talking points:

* The outing of Valerie Plame was a ruse by the Democratic party; * Public schools are bad and should have their funding reduced even further;
* the French are evil because they don’t abjectly support us;
* the Muslims want to kill us all;
* the Muslims want to kill us all again;

And so on (and on, and on).

So, is this astroturfing? Is this person paid to send out all these letters pushing a single point of view? Or is he just a right-wing idiot with too much time on his hands?

My take on this question (since for some reason I can’t post a comment over there): Technically it’s not astroturf, since the writer isn’t pretending to be speaking for a grassroots organization; but it’s a closely related phenomenon.

As I’ve remarked elsewhere, one of the things the Republicans have figured out is that copywriters are relatively cheap to buy and maintain. One constantly sees slick, professional “letters to the editor” that hew closely to the current round of Republican talking points. Real letters from individual citizens who are moved to comment by current events are far more idiosyncratic than these synthetic productions, and they only sporadically match up with current talking points.

Another related phenomenon is the equally slick “forwarded e-mail” that supposedly began as just a letter someone wrote. I’ve worked in publishing for a long time, and I know professionally written copy when I see it.

At one point my sister forwarded me one of these pieces of e-mail, and Making Light’s readership dissected it. What we discovered was that its claim to be a letter to the editor originally published in a Durham, North Carolina newspaper was false. Readers tracked down all the newspapers that could have printed it, and none of them had. The supposed letter’s first dateable appearance, already sporting its supposed provenance, was at Free Republic.

I meant it when I said that deceiving us has become an industrial process. There’s a huge amount of this stuff in circulation. It’s the original viral marketing, and it circulates at levels where no one is going to challenge its outrageous lies. It makes me wonder why the Democrats don’t hire their own copywriters, or at least start pointing out in public that that’s what the Republicans have been doing.

Addendum: Andy Vance comments, “I came across this remarkably unequivocal article this morning. James “journolobby” Glassman is pw3ned. More please.

Comments on Astroturf and disinformation: some guy named Ron Goodden:
#1 ::: Andy Vance ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2006, 04:38 PM:

I came across this remarkably unequivocal article this morning. James "journolobby" Glassman is pw3ned. More please.

#2 ::: Bob Oldendorf ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2006, 04:53 PM:

One constantly sees slick, professional “letters to the editor” that hew closely to the current round of Republican talking points.

Heck, I get them as emails from a conservative friend of mine:
- "Congress needs to intervene to save Terry Schiavo",
- "the Russians smuggled the WMDs into Syria just before we attacked",
- "the insurgency is on its last legs" (I get this one on an annual basis now...),
- "the Dems are unfairly putting governmental pressure on poor Disney/ABC" -

I don't know just where he gets these, but there's a topicality to them that implies that there IS some Central Clearing House for wingnut talking points.

#3 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2006, 04:59 PM:

My mother gets those too. Hell, there's a right-wing chowderhead out there who forwards them to me.

Did you get any of the letters about how we're being "invaded" from Mexico? Those simultaneously turned up all over the place, there was no triggering event they were in response to, and their language was a marked departure from standard border xenophobia. No way were they spontaneously generated by our citizenry.

#4 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2006, 05:01 PM:

How do you identify professionally written copy?

Andy's link is interesting--I like the size acceptance material at Tech Central Station, but get remarkably bored by just about everything else I've seen there--and what I've seen of their commenting community is very dull, too.

At this point, I'm wondering about how Reason (the slick libertarian magazine) is financed--it got fairly boring to me quite a while ago, while Liberty (the non-slick libertarian magazine) is still somewhat fun.

#5 ::: Bob Oldendorf ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2006, 05:11 PM:

My mother gets those too. Hell, there's a right-wing chowderhead out there who forwards them to me.

The thing is, though, that my pal definitely writes his own. It's just the topic that seems to come from Wingnut Central, as it always seems to sparked by something not-quite-prominently-in-the-news-yet.

I'll get an email, and then a day or two later Cheney (say) will give a speech on how the insurgents are now fighting amongst themselves, and then the story will suddenly be everywhere.

It's as though the public attention is being centrally directed, and my rw pal gets an advanced briefing.

#6 ::: Scorpio ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2006, 05:13 PM:

I'm sure the Heritage Foundation, Focus on the Family, and many others have letter writers whose output is copied relentlessly -- maybe list processed -- and mailed to media outlets all over the country every day.

Did you ever see how slick a DEC word processor is? It's a dedicated machine that can tailor letters to individual recipients with tags inserted into the text of the master document. Local addresses, landmarks, events, can be inserted with dream-like efficiency.

So some nice work-at-home housewife write biles and sends it to Corporate where it is churned out and mailed to various papers, radio stations, and television producers. And it can be done on the cheap.

How do you tink the right wing would miss making a business of a scheme like this, hm?

Now let's play a game -- let's guess how *many* of these pernicious slime are out there infecting the body politic.

#7 ::: Scorpio ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2006, 05:15 PM:

Sorry, it's going to be one of those typo days.

#8 ::: Paull Young ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2006, 05:44 PM:

There is an astroturfing project devoted to analysing and uncovering fake letters-to-the-editor. You can check it out here.

#9 ::: Andy Vance ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2006, 06:39 PM:

I just thought of a new strategy. I'm going to change my name to James K. Glassman and represent myself as the proprietor of TCS (Total Cockamamie Syndicate) and peddle Marxist-tinged think pieces to mid-market metro dailies. Maybe then editors will start checking credentials.

This topic has sparked a memory of one of my favorite Roy Edroso posts evar:

Such people are not total hacks -- that is to say, while they may be Satan's emissaries on earth, they do take professional pride in their own work, and add filigrees and flourishes partly to increase effectiveness but also, I believe, out of pure love of craft. For example, there is some obvious merit to the author's accusations against the sugar barons -- among others, that they had hooked up with pure-food types not out of altruism but as a way to fight Splenda's increasing share of the sweetener market. This is the spoonful of sucralose, so to speak, that helps work down the public's gullet a larger message: that people who oppose synthetic foods on whatever grounds are anti-technology "chemicalphobes."

Organizations such as this are not about arguing a case, but adding strands to a narrative. Facts may be used as part of the grapeshot, but they are by no means the only or even most important part of the armamature. Painting an investigation of questionable scientific assertions as an inquisition on the order of Galileo's, for example, lifts the issue out of the debating chamber and into the realm of dreams. You certainly don't want to side with inquisitors or chemicalphobes. Now eat this chlorinated sugar.
Mmmm mmmm. It's almost worth enduring the agitprop to get to a chewy center of a reaction such as that.

#10 ::: pat greene ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2006, 07:50 PM:

The St. Pete Times was honest enough to admit they had run pieces by Glassman, too.

If all news organizations were so quick to admit they'd made mistakes, we'd be in a lot better shape. It should be noted that the St. Pete Times is at the top of Bill O'Reilly's Hall of Shame, which alone makes them worth reading.

#11 ::: Calton Bolick ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2006, 09:39 PM:

It's not necessarily astroturfing, it could be a hobbyist.

The San Francisco Chronicle's Letters to the Editor page has a lot of the same names popping up, and one of the regulars whose name I recognized -- named Beverly Meyer -- was on the mail route when I was substituting for one week umpteen years ago.

Every single day I collected at least half-a-dozen letters to the editor -- most of which were essentially identical cranky right-wing screeds -- bound for newspapers all across the country.

And I know the content because she typed them all on plain white prestamped postcards she bought in bulk from the post office. This was a retirement community, and as near as I can tell this was one of her hobbies -- every day, without fail, were 5-6 postcards bound for the Columbus Dispatch or Seattle Times, having the same 50-word or so message on whatever the topic of the week was.

I'm not saying he ISN'T an astroturfer, but there is a plausible alternate explanation, especially since these days you don't even need the postage and postcards to bang off multiple letters everywhere.

#12 ::: Avedon ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2006, 10:33 PM:

Actually, it's still astroturf if it's "from" an individual rather than from a fake organization.

Having it coming from "ordinary" people who don't belong to any organization is part of the mirage that there are all these private, unconnected individuals out there who are just really, really concerned that poor old Paris Hilton will have to pay taxes on her inheritance, or some unfortunate chemical company might be hampered by having to avoid dumping toxic refuse into your drinking water, or Pfizer might not be able to hold your life hostage for extortionately-priced drugs, etc.

After all, if all the letters about it come from organizations rather than from private individuals, it doesn't quite have that grassroots charm. It's "the little people" who don't have organizations to speak for them who make it really grassy, you see.

#13 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2006, 11:09 PM:

Calton, how well could Beverly Meyer write? I'm familiar with the species of elderly crank whose hobby is writing indignant screeds to the paperes. The stuff I'm talking about doesn't sound like that.

Nancy, I hate to say this, but I recognize professionally written copy because it sounds like professionally written copy. You know those tests where you have to distinguish phishing sites from real ones? I have yet to answer wrong on one of those.

I know that "because it sounds professional" is an inadequate explanation, but if you asked Patrick, or Beth Meacham, or Melissa Singer, they'd say the same thing -- and I believe they'd identify the same pieces I do. It makes me wish Terry Carr were still around. He had a phenomenally good ear.

#14 ::: odaiwai (formerly dave) ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2006, 11:32 PM:

Teresa, thanks for the link.

...(since for some reason I can't post a comment over there)...

I've scoured the logs and I can't see any reason why your post didn't appear. It didn't get tagged as spam or get put aside for moderation. There's a POST in the log, but no sign of the comment. Very strange.

#15 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 12:03 AM:

Teresa, I think I understand what you mean about recognizing professionally written copy when you see it. Not that I have to look at copy, but when you're dealing with copy, or as I do, maps, all day every workday, you become so familiar with it that the wrongness is something that you don't have to think about in order to pick it up. It doesn't explain well, either; the closest I can come is 'it doesn't feel right' or 'it feels wrong'. (Or maybe it's best described as 'pattern recognition'.)

#16 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 12:42 AM:

pat greene @ 10: The St. Pete Times was honest enough to admit they had run pieces by Glassman, too.

The St. Pete Times is a really good newspaper. From my somewhat limited experience with it, the stories are well written and according to my relatives down there they get local stories mostly right.

#17 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 12:47 AM:

This related article in the St. Petersburg Times is worth a read too. It looks like they dug into the astroturf issue a bit, spoke with the authors and actually provide some perspective.

It sounds like their editors take their jobs seriously. Would that the New York Times and Washington Post felt the same way.

#18 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 02:13 AM:

One crucial quality of professional copy is that it doesn't digress, or it digresses only within the limits of talking points.

What I mean is that when real people get passionate, they tend to not stay entirely on the subject. They may decide to ratchet passion down by turning to something familiar, or they may blurt out something that came to mind in the midst of a feverish change of associations, but they do things that mark them as people. You know you're not listening to just a canned lecture about the perils of restricting free speech when Avedon segues into the bra of the week, or her garden walks, for instance. Likewise with, oh, Matthew Yglesias, whose earnest youthful technocratic analysis gains personal color thanks to it sharing spaace with basketball neep, bar reviews, and such, or Hilzoy with her family tradition of philosophy and her wide-ranging enthusiasms. You could fake that sort of voice, but it's not worth the effort.

It seems to me that on the whole, the right blogosphere is less personally distinguished this way, and when there is a strong personal element, it's often in the voice of a dissenter against the dominant faction of the Republican Party. But it's there too, and of course the libertarian blogosphere is loaded with voices that'd never pass managerial checks for plausibility. :)

It's true of commenters, too. If you were astroturfing, you wouldn't (for instance) set up Greg London as your voice, because he talks about his personal ambitions for meaningful work and a bunch of other thing that would distract from a pure message. Every time you add a complicating factor like that, you risk losing the thread. I mention Greg in this context because I'd gotten fairly irritated at some of his views, then he had some fascinating posts about mentoring-type work, and that got me thinking about things in a fresh light. But for someone wanting to push a top-down message, that'd all just be noise, and too liable to make someone think it's too touchy-feely or something. Too much reality for astroturf.

That's not the only distinguishing mark, but it's one of them.

#19 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 07:48 AM:

Re Bruce Baugh in #18:

One crucial quality of professional copy is that it doesn't digress, or it digresses only within the limits of talking point.

Nicely argued. But these personal quirks can be simulated, with some work. Novelists do it all the time!

#20 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 08:33 AM:

(...) when real people get passionate, they tend to not stay entirely on the subject(...)

Agreed, Bruce. On the other hand, sometimes people do make an effort not to wander off topic. Last year, or the year before, my wife was going thru the latest issue of Alibi, one of Albuquerque's alternative weeklies. There was a letter from a reader protesting some changes in her neighborhood's zoning laws in a very articulate and to-the-point manner and my wife started thinking from its tone that it had to have been written by a professional writer. When she reached the end, her suspicions were confirmed. The letter's author?

Suzie McKee-Charnas.

#21 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 09:55 AM:

Serge: Oh, sure, and for that matter there are non-pros who simply write clearly and well. The quality I'm talking about is something a bit different, but I'm not sure how to pin it down more thoroughly than that.

Bill: Anything can be automated given some work, but one interesting thing about a lot of astroturfing is that they don't want to convey some kinds of personality. After all, the point is to direct social concensus from above; encouraging independence and self-determination wouldn't help that. The industrial Newspeak society doesn't have a place for someone like, say, Mike Ford, or John Thullen the resident lunatic genius of Obsidian Wings comment threads.

Along with individuality, another feature that astroturf will lack is joy. I don't mean euphoria or giddiness here, but the whole-hearted engagement of mind and heart in the delighted appreciation of something in the world. It might be Teresa on roses or restaurants, or Michael Berube on a development with his son, or even someone as arch in style as James Wolcott on a really good evening in the company of people he really likes. Astoturfed satisfactions will always be beholden to external authorities, and render down to "this product or service made me glad". Human joys are rooted in people and the world at large; whether it's a solitary delight or a shared one, it's about the joyous one as an individual and their particular circumstances.

(I think this is true even when the thing/circumstance giving joy is a widely common one and the person feeling it doesn't have a well-developed vocabulary for personalizing emotions.)

Astroturfing is much more likely to deal in shallow emotions, with the exception of rage.

#22 ::: odaiwai (formerly dave) ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 10:05 AM:

Some of the local bloggers here in Hong Kong believe that the newpaper in question — the South China Morning Post — touches up the English on letters to the editor. This may result in the letter appearing to be the work of a professional writer, when it's largely the work of a professional editor.

I don't know if this is standard practice for LTEs everywhere, though, and the perp. in question is also a proof-reader on the Gutenberg Project (cite) which may be a good indicator for him being a professional writer of some sort.

#23 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 10:42 AM:

(...) another feature that astroturf will lack is joy (...)


Hell, Bruce, joy and Republican ideology seldom go together.

(This sweeping pronouncement was brought to you by the letter 'S'.)

#24 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 11:28 AM:

Serge, I thought about adding "Joy has been almost completely removed from the dominant Republican list of allowable emotions, apart from vicarious battle-lust, steamy dishonest sexual gratification, and Schadenfreude." I'm still trying to leave mental room for conservatives who are no wilder about this stuff than I am, though I admit that there are times when I wonder how much that fairness is worth it anymore.

#25 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 11:48 AM:

Bruce, our decent conservatives have been betrayed by those they felt were their own. I think it's important to be decent to them out of simple compassion, if nothing else.

#26 ::: Graham Blake ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 12:04 PM:

I keep waiting for Burson Marsteller's name to come up. We had to face these guys back in the early 90's in the British Columbia anti-logging campaigns. They were hired by the BC forest industry and they set up a "grassroots" organisation called the British Columbia Forest Alliance, which actually presented itself as an environmental organisation. They had Greenpeace founder, and later turncoat, Patrick Moore involved - presumably to give it credibility. Suddenly we were facing a well funded "environmental lobby" with a founder of Greenpeace on its board that was spreading its that logging practices in BC were sustainable. Yikes.

In case you are not familiar with the work of Burson Marsteller, their history reads like a laundry list for Evil Inc. Some of their greatest hits include:

- Public relations for Union Carbide in the wake of Bhopal.
- PR for Exxon following the Valdez spill in Alaska.
- PR following Three Mile Island
- PR for the Argentinian military junta led by Gen. Jorge Videla after 35,000 people were disappeared.

The list goes on. It is pretty clear they are not on the side of a well informed public and an open debate.

Burson Marsteller continues its mission to baffle and befuddle, and actually advertises its astroturf services on its website. Their Direct Impact division advertises itself as having "set the standard for excellence in grassroots communications". Some of their promotional material is mind-bogglingly candid.

To quote:

"Direct Impact offers clients a single point of contact and a centrally managed, dedicated team of seasoned grassroots professionals for every program."

"At Direct Impact, we surround target audiences with communications from trusted sources to deliver a consistent message through multiple mediums. Our battle-tested "surround sound" method has been proven to identify, educate and mobilize community leaders, influencers and stakeholders to take action."

"We maintain a nationwide network of field operatives who have reach into every market and political district in the country. Working within target markets, our representatives assess the on-the-ground situation, recruit and educate allies and facilitate meaningful communications to targets."

I really do believe that taking on these public opinion factories is one of the central challenges facing those of us with an interest in truth and reality. This outfit is definitely one to beware of.

#27 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 12:37 PM:

I suspect the astroturf phenomenon has fuzzy borders because it builds on basic primate behavior patterns (gossip, delusional pattern-recognition, big-monkey/little-monkey, Tupperware parties). For example, my wife has a couple of colleagues who have become nearly-perfect pro-administratin dittoheads all on their own, parroting the latest responses and ripostes as fast as the opposition can raise issues or arguments. I suppose they might be seen as repeater rather than generating stations in a viral campaign, but they manage to internalize the vision and rhetoric of their band so well that they give the arguments the appearance of life. (Neither of these guys gets any closer to the blogosphere than Fox News.)

About spotting pro-level writing: I suspect most competent English teachers do something similar when reading student papers. When I was teaching, I could detect plagiarism with a pretty high degree of confidence even before going to the library to get the proof. It's pattern recognition (non-delusional variety).

#28 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 01:23 PM:

Teresa, if there's no explicit answer to "how do you recognize professionally written copy?", that's interesting, too.

Bruce, I appreciate your point about professionally written copy lacking human variation in subject and emotion (and that might explain why I'm apt to find the professional stuff boring), but does that sort of thing show up strongly in something as brief as most letters to the editor?

#29 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 01:40 PM:

Nancy: No, though sometimes you can spot it even in short passages. It's something you'd have to see over time, usually.

#30 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 02:41 PM:

I think explaining how a person recognizes professional copy might be akin to explaining how a person wiggles the ears.

#31 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 04:11 PM:

In part yes, Greg, but I also think there are things one can point at and say "this warrants being suspicious; check it out further."

#32 ::: DaveL ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 04:58 PM:

Avedon writes "Actually, it's still astroturf if it's "from" an individual rather than from a fake organization."

Are you sure you want to cast all such letters into the "astroturf" bin? I assume by the scare-quotes around "from" that you are referring to letters prompted by some call to action. Why are they astroturf? My wife, who gets a dozen such calls to action a day from all sorts of liberal and environmental causes (some probably just as "fake" as the right-wing ones), sometimes is moved by them to write. Is she therefore "astroturf"?

Let's keep the pejoratives where they belong: referring to bought-and-paid-for fake opinions. I hope that's what you really meant and I'm just misreading you.

If not, I can't imagine what sort of political letter-writing you find acceptable.

#33 ::: Ron Goodden ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 06:04 PM:

Teresa, ask your friend Dave to consider for a tiny moment that maybe not everyone sees the world as he and his friends do and yet may, perversely, have the same desire to influence others that he so obviously does. (Perhaps he merely wanted to demonstrate my point?)

No, I'm neither paid nor professional. But thank you for the "professionally slick writing" compliment you've graciously passed along -- though I gather a blind date with you next time I'm in your pied a terre is out of the question(?)


#34 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 06:25 PM:

So, Ron Goodden (if that's really you) are you aware that you'll go to Hell when you die?

#35 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 06:28 PM:

I believe the phrase was "professionally slick right-wing disinformation".

Swallowing every right-wing catch phrase and barfing it up in some letter to the editor can produce quite dazzling colors, but doesn't neccesarily reflect anything but a tendancy to gorge yourself on right wing bullshit.

#36 ::: Renee ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 06:35 PM:

I've spotted plagiarism within three words of the opening of a piece.

Teresa's right; there is no hard rule regarding what is and is not 'professional' copy. In the above case, those three words were over the writer's implied vocabulary level (I'd spoken to her online several times) and a simple Google search proved that suspicion out. Other patterns work with other people--grammar tics, for instance, or subject obsessions. There's a ... (warning! airy-fairy touchy-feely comment coming!) sense of mis-match between the text and the writer, as if the soul doesn't match.

Bah.

(crawls back under her rock.)

#37 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 06:36 PM:

Ron Goodden @ 33:
Just out of curiosity, why the South China Morning News?

#38 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 06:47 PM:

Hi, DaveL. Yes, there is a difference. There's no Right/Left parity on this one. There are vastly fewer left-speaking astroturf campaigns, and fewer professional writers of laundered opinions.

Avedon and I disagree about the use of the term, but she and I have known each other for a very long time, so I expect we'll sort it out.

Mr. Goodden, welcome to Making Light. I thought there was a chance you'd show up. You didn't actually spend much time here, but I expect you're busy today doing repairs.

If you want to argue with DaveL, argue with him yourself. As for your claim that you're just an opinionated citizen, I'm sorry, but I don't believe it. Oh, and pied a terre does not mean the same thing as "neighborhood".

#39 ::: Ron Goodden ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 07:16 PM:

... So the blind date thing's definitely a no-go(?)


#41 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 07:49 PM:

Fool

#42 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 07:50 PM:

Nancy asks How do you identify professionally written copy?

That's sort of like asking with with an exceedingly good pair of ears and sense pitch how they identify A 440. You just . . . do. It sounds like A 440.

It's the same skill set that's useful in spotting plagiarized text before you locate the source, or dating and locating the origins of a text of unknown provenance. Part of it is experience, both in identifying unknown texts and verifying that identification, and part is experience reading an enormous quantity of texts of all sorts (or listening to lots of As).

#43 ::: Paul Lalonde ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 07:59 PM:

Teresa asks: It makes me wonder why the Democrats don't hire their own copywriters, or at least start pointing out in public that that's what the Republicans have been doing.

I'm pretty sure it's not for lack of knowing, but rather that it just feels dirty. The right appears to have no such compunction.

And sadly, most of the public is either oblivious or shares the right's lack of shame surrounding the technique.

#44 ::: Dena Shunra ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 08:15 PM:

Professionally written copy looks edited. It looks like someone has read and reread it, unkinked the kinks and untypoed the typos, added the occasional final flourish and emotional word. It looks like someone has taken the text, printed it out on a piece of paper and read it over, with a red pen, then gone back to the screen and corrected it.

The thing is that while amateur copy may be heart-felt, professional copy is sort of brain-heavy, you can see that words have been thought of and added and changed and edited. It looks very different from even an edited hobby product - it sounds more like a broadcast than a conversation.

Does this description help at all?

#45 ::: Avedon ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 08:48 PM:

From Wikipedia on Astroturfing:

Astroturfing techniques usually consist of a few people discreetly posing as mass numbers of activists advocating a specific cause. Supporters or employees will manipulate the degree of interest through letters to the editor, e-mails, blog posts, crossposts, trackbacks, etc. They are instructed on what to say, how to say it, where to send it, and how to make it appear that their indignation, appreciation, joy, or hate is entirely spontaneous and independent; thus being "real" emotions and concerns rather than the product of an orchestrated campaign. Local newspapers are often victims of astroturfing, by publishing letters that are identical to letters other newspapers have received.

These people will sometimes write as organizations, and sometimes as individuals.

That doesn't mean real individuals don't also write letters on their own, just that these individuals may actually be part of a paid stable of fake representatives of the grassroots.

It is sometimes the case that a letter written by the paid hack is passed around to different people with instructions to send them to different newspapers under their own name.

BTW, it is worth noting that newspapers routinely remove parts of letters they find uninteresting, so some of the personal stuff might be pared away from a real letter and give it a more professional feel. (I have noted that, as with everything else, in this age of e-mail when letters no longer have to be re-typed, many errors are left in as is, rather than corrected as they used to be.)


#46 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 08:52 PM:

If Ron, or anyone else I hadn't made previous arrangements with, were in my pied à terre[1] I'd be calling the cops with a trespassing complaint.

[1] Were I sufficiently well-off to afford one, which I am not. I do make frequent use of apartment-style hotels when visiting other cities, but I suspect that a Residence Inn doesn't meet high society standards for a proper pied à terre.

#47 ::: Vian ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 09:03 PM:

re #43

It seems to me that it's another instance of the Democrats taking the moral high ground, to their credit and to their disadvantage.

I dislike the notion that amateur copy doesn't look as polished as professional copy. Most of the people on this blog, if they wrote something intended for publication, would ensure that their opinions were eloquent and clearly expressed regardless of whether they were going to be paid for it. Payment distinguishes amateur from professional writing, not style.

That said, the Web makes it easier to track down shills, and to scyte when they have to go into damage mode. Now we know Mr Gooden's name and character. It's only a matter of time before someone sets up a name-and-shame site.

Al Gore was on telly here last night, promoting his movie. As part of the interview, they played one of the Exxon-sponsored Carbon Dioxide Is Life ads, with little preamble. The audience giggled all through it. Do Australians just have better bull-detectors than Americans, or are people finally starting to look at this sort of propaganda with a critical eye?

#48 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 09:17 PM:

Paul Lalonde (43):

Democrats have been about as willing as Republicans to do gerrymandering of districts to protect their incumbents, to do slimy attack ads, etc., so I have my doubts about the "they're too ethical" explanation for a lack of left-wing astroturf. Perhaps there's some other reason why this just doesn't work out as well for the left as for the right?

Corporate astroturf has no ideology, of course, just interests. Should cable be more tightly regulated? Depends on whether your employer is the satellite TV industry or the cable industry. Should steel tariffs be raised? Depends on whether your employer makes steel or cars.

Maybe some causes don't get astroturfed because nobody with an interest in them can afford to pay to have it done.

#49 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 09:29 PM:

why the Democrats don't hire their own copywriters, or at least start pointing out in public that that's what the Republicans have been doing.

I'd rather see them pointing out republican astroturf, rather than taking on astroturfing themselves. But that's just me.

#50 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 09:37 PM:

It's also true that some letters-to-the-editor and blog comment writers have good writing skills because they are in professions that reward good writing skills. The two I'm thinking of are acquaintances of mine, an academic and a lawyer, who, one surreal morning, were both published in the NYT letters column as opposing voices on evolution.

While not all academics and lawyers write well, or persuasively, some of them do. The lawyer, for instance (who is as vile a human as I have the bad luck to know) managed to write a perfectly credible argument that scientific proof was just another sort of logical analysis, and should not be privileged over legal proof or symbolic logic.

#51 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 09:48 PM:

in #47 Vian writes:

That said, the Web makes it easier to track down shills, and to scyte when they have to go into damage mode. Now we know Mr Gooden's name and character. It's only a matter of time before someone sets up a name-and-shame site.

Okay, let's start digging.

The Google search suggested in Dave's Wibblings does indeed turn up a lot of letters-to-the-editor. But it also reveals that one Ronald J. Goodden submitted The Story Of The Malakand Field Force, one of Winston Churchill's books, to Project Gutenberg.

Searching on "ronald j gooden" and "churchill" turns up another book, The River War. The Goodden contributing this one has the same e-mail address given by the Ron Goodden posting to this thread.

Whatever distaste I may have for Mr. Goodden's political views, I claim that he has done at least two admirable things.

#52 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 09:50 PM:

managed to write a perfectly credible argument that scientific proof was just another sort of logical analysis

hm, it may have been perfectly persuasive, but it wasn't credible. Scientific proof is based in empirical results. Logical analysis, legal wranglings, and symbolic logic, can operate without any real-world basis. They are entirely different.

It is quite easy to create a logic system that is entirely consistent and wholly complete, and yet not have a damn thing to do with how the physical world works. Science observes first, and then attempts to model its observations. At any time, if the observations consistently show the model to be wrong, the model is tossed, not the observations.

folks who put their logical systems above reproach of real world observations are definitely NOT being scientific.

#53 ::: Vian ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 10:10 PM:

Whatever distaste I may have for Mr. Goodden's political views, I claim that he has done at least two admirable things.

Contributing to Project Gutenberg is indeed a fine and admirable thing. OTOH, claiming on this board to be "neither paid nor professional" when he's demonstrably been both (thanks for the link, Andy) in the past is neither so fine, nor so admirable. It's also what's at issue here.

#54 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 10:10 PM:

I really like the term "idea laundering". It's better than "astroturfing" IMO because it clearly evokes the relationship to money laundering -- the removal of identifiable traces of illicit activity from an asset.

#55 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 10:16 PM:

OTOH, there's a guy on my morning train who manages to sound like his conversation has been copyedited. Worse, he has a radio announcer's voice. And his conversation is uninteresting. (Some mornings I consider strangling him with his badge lanyard. Anyone know a good instant-laryngitis spell?)

#56 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 10:21 PM:

From Dena:

Professionally written copy looks edited. It looks like someone has read and reread it, unkinked the kinks and untypoed the typos, added the occasional final flourish and emotional word. It looks like someone has taken the text, printed it out on a piece of paper and read it over, with a red pen, then gone back to the screen and corrected it.

The thing is that while amateur copy may be heart-felt, professional copy is sort of brain-heavy, you can see that words have been thought of and added and changed and edited. It looks very different from even an edited hobby product - it sounds more like a broadcast than a conversation.

Does this description help at all?

I'm not sure it does. Is there a useful distinction to be made between polished writing and professional shilling?

I suspect astroturf writing isn't just carefully edited, it's depersonalized.

#57 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 10:23 PM:

Greg, Lizzy: that was beautiful.

Albatross (48): Actually, no: they haven't been nearly as slimy and corrupt. You cannot simply assume parity.

#58 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 10:24 PM:

51: I don't think anyone made so sweeping a claim as to state Mr Goodden has never done an admirable thing in his life. And the presence of admirable actions does not prove the non-existence of un-admirable things.

That the letters to editors written by Goodden can be summarized as follows:

* The outing of Valerie Plame was a ruse by the Democratic party;
* Public schools are bad and should have their funding reduced even further;
* the French are evil because they don't abjectly support us;
* the Muslims want to kill us all;
* the Muslims want to kill us all again;

would seem to indicate that while Goodden's quite admirable when it comes to the Gutenburg project and old texts in the public domain, in other areas more current, he's a crank, a racist, religiously bigotted, and a repeater station for right wing tinfoilhattery.

+2 for guttenburg.
-40 for the rest.

It isn't that he doens't have any positives. It's that the final tally is a much negative number.


As for whether he's paid to write letters to the editor, I'm not convinced, but it isn't that important to me. Folks will write all sorts of politically motivated stuff for free. See wikipedia for examples. That doesn't rule out the possibility that he's still a nutjob. See wikipedia for examples there too.

#59 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 10:38 PM:

Anyone know a good instant-laryngitis spell?

As soon as target engages you and waits for you to respond, regardless of the topic, or question, cast the spell with the following words:

"I'm awaiting orders from my home planet."

Notes:

must be said with a straight face to take effect.

odd, slightly unnatural tempo/meter, +3 bonus.

remaining completely motionless for a slightly unnatural amount of time after casting spell, +2 bonus.

while making eye contact with target, +6 bonus

followed by odd, nervous tick, +2 bonus.

#60 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 11:37 PM:

Greg London:

"I'm awaiting orders from my home planet."

Around here, we use a version of an old Saturday Night Live line. In your best William Shatner speech pattern, say:

"I want...to be...A MIME!"

Works like a charm.

#61 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 11:53 PM:

Greg London at 52 "hm, it may have been perfectly persuasive, but it wasn't credible."

Credible to the credulous, maybe?

I've snarked elsewhere about writing which is grammatical, logically structured, but divorced from factual reality, which is what Lawyer-Guy specializes in. Scientific proof is the only sort which applies when we are dealing with scientific questions; bringing up other sorts of proof in that context is duplicitous, at very least, but it muddies the waters nicely when read by people who don't understand what science is.

#62 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2006, 09:54 AM:

Did you notice that "blind date" stuff is a sand-in-the-eyes ha-ha-funnystuff attempt to reduce the actual genuine terms of argument to "Teresa is a woman and she won't even fuck me!"

Scumbag.

#63 ::: DaveL ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2006, 10:14 AM:

Ron Goodden writes "Teresa, ask your friend Dave to consider for a tiny moment that maybe not everyone sees the world as he and his friends do and yet may, perversely, have the same desire to influence others that he so obviously does."

As TNH suggested, if you want to argue with me, argue with me. I might start by pointing out that you know absolutely nothing about my politics or opinions, or how I personally prefer to influence others.

"I and my friends" (and to be my friend one doesn't have to share my politics) prefer to influence others without using the artificial multiplier of paid parrots masquerading as nightingales.

I don't mind if you forward something you've seen, saying "this is persuasive." I don't even mind too much if you are in agreement with something and send it on lightly or unedited: we are not all facile writers. As long as they are your sentiments, I'm okay with it.

Where I draw the line is producing fake agreement for pay. In the old old days before the Internet, politicians were said to value letters they received, believing they represented 10 or 100 citizens who didn't write.

Now, thanks to spam, the Forward button and Cut/Paste, we can imagine that each 10 or 100 or 1000 emails received represents one citizen who actually hasn't read its sentiments and is being paid to express them.

This is hardly progress.

#64 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2006, 11:44 AM:

Scientific proof is the only sort which applies when we are dealing with scientific questions; bringing up other sorts of proof in that context is duplicitous, at very least, but it muddies the waters nicely when read by people who don't understand what science is.

Only if you don't unmuddy the waters. Every time I hear crap that throws empirical science in with logic, and equates them as the same thing, I lunge. For the throat. I will not allow the debate to be framed from ignorance. Ignorance is the only way for evolution to be "just a theory". Ignorance is the only way to present creationism as "just as valid as evolution".

It is not the choir you must preach to about this. It is the the folks who don't know science very well and who can get sucked in by smooth talking assholes with an agenda to put their religion in my schools and my government. These peddlers can only suck people in as long as the people view empirical science and symbolic logic as exactly the same. It is their achilles heel, and I shoot for it every time I hear their crap.

#65 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2006, 12:23 PM:

Jo: That I wouldn't do so goes without saying. Putting me down sexually is just a way for Goodden to strike back at me without having to stop long enough to read anything here. That's characteristic of astroturfers. Paying attention and having real interactions are an unprofitable use of their time.

Also, as you yourself pointed out in elsewhere, if he wasn't an astroturfer he'd have been indignant and argumentive when he showed up. He wouldn't just blip in and try to score cheap points.

In the end, I care a great deal more about my opinion of him than I do about his opinion of me.

#66 ::: odaiwai (formerly dave) ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2006, 01:10 PM:
Ron Goodden @ 33: Just out of curiosity, why the South China Morning News?


I'm sure that 'Ron' isn't going to grace us with his presence again, but the SCMP (Post, not News, but that's a minor point) is one of the two English Language newpapers here in Hong Kong.

There's a large American Business Community (ABC) here, which I think this stuff is aimed at. (There were other missives to the Singapore Straits Times, another place with a substantial ABC.)

Those who live in HK may get used to odd socialist notions like universal healthcare[1] and a working and completely integrated transport system[2].

Obviously, some prompting on the cult of Bush is deemed necessary to keep the faithful in line.

dave

[1] Both of our children were born in the public hospitals at a cost of HK$204 (about US$25) for a three day stay. Everyone I met in the Hospital spoke probably better English than I do, usually as their third or fourth Language.

[2] There's a single card which works on all three rail networks, the tram network, the ferries, the buses and mini-buses and you can even use it to buy stuff in 7-11, Circle-K and most supermarkets. "Multi-pass" a friend from California called it, echoing The Fifth Element.

#67 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2006, 01:23 PM:

Thank you. It just seemed like an odd place to be doing astroturfing. (Sorry about getting the name wrong.)

#68 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2006, 04:48 PM:

Greg London at #64 "It is not the choir you must preach to about this. It is the the folks who don't know science very well and who can get sucked in by smooth talking assholes with an agenda to put their religion in my schools and my government."

Well, yeah, and it is what I do- have done, in fact, toe-to-toe with Lawyer Guy, in PTSA meetings. The problem is, when the audience is already prone to believe his side of things, the accuracy of my facts and definitions and the logic of my argumentation tends to be shot down by the truthiness of his.

#69 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2006, 05:09 PM:

The problem is, when the audience is already prone to believe his side of things, the accuracy of my facts and definitions and the logic of my argumentation tends to be shot down by the truthiness of his.

Accuracy of your facts and definitions are insufficient. They also tend to be the thing that gets progressives every time. They think having the facts on their side is enough. It aint.

You are playing a game of "Thing" or "Mafia", except the stakes are a lot bigger. You know the guy is wrong, but you have to convince a sufficient number of folks to throw the bum out.

#70 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2006, 06:06 PM:

Greg London at #69 says "You know the guy is wrong, but you have to convince a sufficient number of folks to throw the bum out."

Which is where I went astray; the point I originally meant to make was that Lawyer Guy has a following; within a few news cycles, points he's made in the local letters columns are repeated, by a predictable and identifiable set of letter-writers, in neighboring papers. The phrases he's compounded stand out in stark relief from the rest of the letters. Sometimes his fan club members show up on the call-in segments of KUOW (Seattle NPR) talk shows. Rather than astroturf, the stuff spreads like creeping fescue, or a bad cold.


#71 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2006, 06:40 PM:

Lawyer Guy has a following

JESR, have you ever played "Thing"? I just googled around and was surprised I couldn't find any site that has rules for it. The gist of it though is that a majority of well meaning folks can be scuttled by a small group of persuasive individuals. The only way is to be more persuasive with the truth.

Of course they'll have a following. They operate on persuasion alone, since they do not have the backing of truth. The trap of course is people who hold the truth think truth trumps persuasion, and it doesn't. It still comes down to being a matter of persuasion.

"Don't think of an elephant" is a rules manual for the political version of a game of Thing. good book. and very short.

#72 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2006, 11:29 PM:

At least one Seattle newspaper writer is writing about astroturfing, and calling it that.

It even involves Teresa's previously mentioned topic of "tort reform". I was amused by the shared PO box, though...sheesh, can't these folks at least spare the few bucks it would take to rent another box at the same PO?

#73 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 13, 2006, 10:28 AM:

Teresa (57):

I recommend looking at the congressional district maps at

http://nationalatlas.gov/printable/congress.html

and seeing whether you notice that Democrats are inherently unwilling to gerrymander. I will admit that I didn't try to do any kind of in-depth analysis, but states where the districts were drawn by Democrats typically seemed to have about as salamander-like districts as those drawn by Republicans.

Note that I'm not claiming Democrats and Republicans are indistinguishable, I'm claiming that Democrats are just as willing as Republicans to gerrymander districts.

Similarly, I've seen Democratic attack ads that were no less vicious than the Republican ones I've seen, though again, I don't have any kind of formal analysis of this. I guess I could dig around for examples, but I'm not sure there's much value in doing that, because I have no idea how to find a representative sample of political ads.

That's why I don't buy the explanation of superior ethics for why we don't see more left-wing astroturf.

More generally, I think there's a tendency to just see things differently when it's your guys doing it. They run smarmy attack ads, we point out the many negative points of our opponents' records in gritty detail. They gerrymander districts to take away any pretense of freedom of choice; we carefully draw districts to make sure that minorities and urban voters will have a voice. They shamelessly pander to the worst part of their base, we sometimes have to bend to political necessity.

The same method of thinking and filtering out facts works with the war on terror, right? The jihadis are filty uncivilized murderers, who blow up kids with truck bombs, murder Iraqis standing in line to get jobs as policemen, capture and torture people to make a political point. We are civilized soldiers and citizens who occasionally cause a little collateral damage, attack recruiting operations by the jihadis, and sometimes engage in harsh questioning methods for terrorism suspects. They shoot missiles at and invade innocent countries. We engage in pinpoint strikes and rescue the citizens from their evil government.

The point is not that Democrats and Republicans are indistinguishable, or that Americans and Islamic terrorists are. In both cases, there are huge differences. But when you identify one side with "us" and the other with "them," it's very easy to evaluate the same actions in completely different ways when done by one of us or one of them.

#74 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: September 13, 2006, 11:45 AM:

Republicans commit crimes while in power, Democrats want to move on and get on with governing the country, then Republicans commit crimes while in power, then Democrats want to move on and govern the country, but can't because Republicans are attacking them over invented crimes, then Republicans steal the election and commit crimes while in power...

You're right albatross, there is a kind of symmetry. The two parties are like twins. Horror movie twins.

#75 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: September 13, 2006, 08:19 PM:

albatross @ 73 : Note that I'm not claiming Democrats and Republicans are indistinguishable, I'm claiming that Democrats are just as willing as Republicans to gerrymander districts.

I've thought that it should be possible to create a mapping algorithm that would draw up the maps based on “compactness” (and perhaps other criteria, such as not putting a district boundary in the middle of the street). This should be an “open source” project, so that the workings of this mapping algorithm would be open to inspection.

Of course, I realize no one (in power, or hoping to be in power) is interested in being fair and neutral.

Maybe we could designate the Belgians to do redistricting.

#76 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: September 13, 2006, 08:29 PM:

Shouldn't it be possible to do some sort of austrialian type voting method where districts are mapped to put people with similar views in teh same district?

This, rather than using it as a way to split up a group such that none are a majority in any given district?

I'm with Rob on this one. This feels like a problem that can be solved by software, and every district in the country uses the same software, and the software should operate such that it generates the same results whether you give it a map of republicans and democrats, or whether you swtich the labels on people.

#77 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: September 13, 2006, 11:40 PM:

Rob, I did that for a NoVA church's elders once. They'd traditionally been given areas with no attention to how many church people were in each area. Recently, they'd been given people by last name initial so they traveled all over the top part of the state. They wanted compact areas where each area had roughly the same number of church people. I gave them that. You'd think it could be upsized to entire states.

#78 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: September 13, 2006, 11:54 PM:

Albatross, I find that argument fairly specious. Currently it appears that 'districting' is fairly in favor of gerrymandering to keep the status quo versus keeping like-minded areas grouped. Where like-minded ? value the politicians in power want. In areas where it's contested it appears fairly random compared to areas like where I live where they wish they could get one concensus or another everyhwere.

Just my 2 cents, ymmv.

#79 ::: Dori ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2006, 01:04 AM:

Courtesy of a post on Talking Points Memo tonight:

DCI, if you're not familiar with them, is an interlocking group of companies which is the phony seed bed for most noxious astroturf organizing and general bamboozlement in contemporary politics.

Here's an old post from 2003 on DCI, here's one on astroturf organizing in general and here's a selection of posts on the Johnny Appleseed of GOP astroturf opps, Tom Synhorst, the main man at DCI.

[Note: The DCI Group was previously mentioned here in the comments of No intention of playing fair.]

What's this in reference to? Google just hired the DCI Group. Be afraid, be very afraid.

#80 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2006, 01:26 AM:

Personally, I like the idea of multi-member superdistricts using Single Transferrable Vote to elect representatives.

If you have a four-member superdistrict and 25% of the district is fannish, you can elect a SMOF without having to gerrymander blobs connecting all the university campuses and specialty bookstores.

To use Massachusetts as an example, the 10 current districts could be combined into three superdistricts. You'd want to rationalize the boundaries a bit, with swaps here and there relative to the existing districts because of the previous gerrymandering.

A quick look at the map makes me think that you could take the 1st, 2nd, and 5th districts plus most of the 3rd, making up the rest of the district by swapping towns between the 3rd and 4th along the RI border and maybe taking Framingham and Natick from the 7th. There's a 4 member district. The rest of the 3rd, 4th, part of the 9th and most of the 10th makes a 3 member district for southeast MA including the Cape and Islands. The 6th, remaining 7th, 8th, and remaining 9th make another 3 member district covering the metro Boston and North Shore area.

(Current district maps here.)

Or, hey, just elect all 10 using STV in one big election; the Cambridge city council has 9 seats, and that's how we do it. Using the 2004 Presidential turnout as a starting point, we have 2.9 million votes, which means that any bloc of more than about 270,000 people could elect one person to Congress. (Of course, it would probably take fewer, since not all those folks would vote for Congress, especially for midterm elections.)

This would, ironically, give the GOP power they don't currently have. Right now all ten of MA's Representatives are Democrats, but in 2004 the total vote for Republicans in the five districts they bothered to run in was over 435,000. Assume that they manage to get a similar number of votes in the other five, and they'd have three seats instead of zero....

#81 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2006, 03:10 AM:

Me, I want to see a larger House, with the smallest population state defining the constituency of one representative (rounding to the nearest whole value for subsequent states) yes some will get a trifle shorted, and some will get a trifle more but it's got to be better than the present where one Wyoming Rep equals more than several New York or Calif., which is bad enough for day to day legislation, but becomes downright vicious for the Electoral College.

That matters more to me than the gerrymandering of present districts (the evil of what was done in Texas notwithstanding)

#82 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2006, 07:58 AM:

Christopher Davis #80: Malta has five-member STV constituencies, the Irish go as high as six (and as low as three). I'd say that 6 members is as large a magnitude as should be managed with STV, given that voters have to rank the candidates.

Why not list proportional representation instead? Or the German mixed member proportional system?

#83 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2006, 08:55 AM:

My personal ideal for voting districts is: start in the portion of the state the has the corner closest to a right angle. Make a square until you have a district which has (total population of the state/desired number of districts) people in it. Make your next district by taking one dimension of the the first one and increasing the other dimension till you have the right number of people again. When you get to the border of the state, start from the beginning again for the next row/column. Repeat till the state is covered.

#84 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2006, 10:41 AM:

There was a story in Science News a couple of years back about people who were playing with software that could create districts (census, voting, whatever) that were compact and had about the same number of people. Can't remember where they were from, but the examples in the illos were interesting. So it's being tried. (It was the cover story, FWIW.) It was, IIRC, mapping software of some flavor.

#85 ::: Anarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2006, 04:52 PM:

odaiwai: The Octopus is an amazing thing, innit? It was only adopted after I left HK but every time I've been back it's been more and more... well, astounding.

#86 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2006, 05:00 PM:

one Wyoming Rep equals more than several New York

Isn't the number of reps in the House population based already? I don't quite understand how it is now versus what you're proposing.

#87 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2006, 05:04 PM:

Here's the sScience news story - I hit the cached file, because I think you need a login to get into the archives (but won't swear to it). (Googled on "science news" and "mapping", then went to 'more results'.)

A Better Distorted View
The physics of diffusion offers a new way of generating maps
Ivars Peterson
Week of Aug. 28, 2004; Vol. 166, No. 9, p. 136
www.sciencenews.org/articles/20040828/bob8.asp

#88 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2006, 05:41 PM:

The proposal I've seen along these lines was to limit the perimeter of the districts. Though as things are going now, I'm looking forward to fractal voting districts. (I'm visualizing a sort of barcode-looking 2-dimensional version of the Cantor set, where one party gets the set, and the other party gets all the excluded parts. "Hey, there are an infinite number of pieces to your district, why are you complaining? Just 'cause you didn't happen to get any *voters*....")

#89 ::: Nancy C ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2006, 06:03 PM:

Greg, the number of representatives is capped at 435, no matter what the population of the U.S. is.

#90 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2006, 11:18 PM:

Fragano (#82): Admittedly, 10 is a bit much, but it would really simplify districting. (Heh.) Two districts of 5 and 5 wouldn't be too tough to set up; start from Boston and keep adding the nearest town not already part of the district until the population in it and the population in the rest of the state are close (or cross over).

How about this?

States with 6 or fewer reps: STV statewide for all seats.
7 reps: two superdistricts: one of four seats created by starting at largest city and using the previous "nearest neighbor" scheme, the remainder a 3 seat superdistrict.
8-12: 4/4, 5/4, 5/5, 6/5, 6/6 with the larger district to include the largest city.

This leaves us with only 11 states requiring more than two superdistricts. Annoyingly, three of these states have 13 districts. 5/4/4 would probably be the best breakdown there.

I'm not fond of list-based proportional systems because I think they put too much emphasis on parties. (The mixed member system seems to me to have the worst features of both proportional representation and our current setup; single member districts plus the "party hacks" list.)

#91 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2006, 12:47 AM:

I don't really like superdistrict concepts... getting even more disenfranchised by large cities and their close-in suburbs is majorly irritating, for example.

Why does the mass transit stink where I live? It;'s partially be state Sen Havern lives in Arlington, and doesn't -care- about people who live and work outside of route 128, he lives in Arlington, inside it... there's no cirumferential mass transit, and as long as the Haverns have control, won't be. It's all into and out of Boston/Cambridge/etc., forget about getting from Lowell to Waltham NOT going -in- to Boston and then -out- of Boston, it's like flying from somewhere like Manchester,NH Minneapolis, via Atlanta or Dallas-Ft Worth...

#92 ::: Jen Roth ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2006, 01:52 AM:

Iowa's redistricting is done by a nonpartisan board called the Legislative Services Bureau. Their software creates the most compact districts possible taking into account equality of population in each district, and integrity of existing natural and political boundaries. They try not to split up cities or counties more than necessary, for instance, and they try to nest smaller districts neatly inside bigger ones. Those criteria are set forth by state law. The result is a pretty reasonable map, and ISTR that Iowa usually has several competitive Congressional races every cycle.

It's not that nobody knows how to do it, it's that the political will doesn't exist.

#93 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2006, 10:30 AM:

Christopher Davis #90: Some list PR systems allow voters to indicate a specific candidate preference within party lists (Finland and Belgium, if I recall correctly).

Your suggestion is certainly interesting, and for most states would mean that there would be only one or two districts each with a number of representatives. What it would do, I suspect, is put some Libertarians and Greens into Congress, and, possibly some neo-Confederates. That would be a more representative body than the one we've got right now.

#94 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2006, 10:32 AM:

Paula Lieberman #91: I'm not sure why having a multi-member district would be worse for mass transit. It would certainly become easier for you to vote for a candidate likely to represent your views.

#95 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2006, 09:20 PM:

WashPost article on paid bloggers for the VA Senate race. You guys wonder why we keep bringing up Allen vs. Webb? A lot of insider Republicans plan on making Allen president in 2008.

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