By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 7, 2008
Spread John McCain's official talking points around the Web -- and you could win valuable prizes!
That, in essence, is the McCain campaign's pitch to supporters to join its new online effort, one that combines the features of "AstroTurf" campaigning with the sort of customer-loyalty programs offered by airlines, hotel chains, restaurants and the occasional daily newspaper.
On McCain's Web site, visitors are invited to "Spread the Word" about the presumptive Republican nominee by sending campaign-supplied comments to blogs and Web sites under the visitor's screen name. The site offers sample comments ("John McCain has a comprehensive economic plan . . .") and a list of dozens of suggested destinations, conveniently broken down into "conservative," "liberal," "moderate" and "other" categories. Just cut and paste.
Activists and political operatives have used volunteers or paid staff to seed radio call-in shows or letters-to-the-editor pages for years, typically without disclosing the caller or letter writer's connection to a candidate or cause. Like the fake grass for which the practice is named, such AstroTurf messages look as though they come from the grass roots but are ersatz.
McCain's campaign has taken the same idea and given it an Internet-era twist. It also has taken the concept one step further.
People who sign up for McCain's program receive reward points each time they place a favorable comment on one of the listed Web sites (subject to verification by McCain's webmasters). The points can be traded for prizes, such as books autographed by McCain, preferred seating at campaign events, even a ride with the candidate on his bus, known as the Straight Talk Express, according to campaign spokesman Brian Rogers.
"Anytime you're getting supporters activated into online communities or taking other actions to spread the word, that's a win," Rogers says.
"Reward points" or other incentives for political work aren't a new concept. The Republican National Committee started a rewards program for volunteer fundraisers several years ago. More recently, Barack Obama's campaign has given small donors and volunteers the chance to win a lunch or dinner with the candidate. (Obama's campaign doesn't have a comment program similar to McCain's.)
More chillingly, dissidents alleged earlier this year that the Chinese government has paid Chinese citizens token sums for each favorable comment about government policies they post in chat rooms and on blogs.
Offering incentives to spread presidential campaign rhetoric online makes sense, says Michael Cornfield, an adjunct professor at George Washington University and an expert in political management online. "Now that social media have expanded citizen comment opportunities far beyond the old letter to the editor and talk show call-in, campaigns should take advantage," he says.
But Cornfield (an executive with a company that markets political-organizing software) says McCain's program has a couple of bugs.
The first, he says, is the lack of disclosure instructions to participants. To rise above AstroTurf -- a practice considered ethically dubious by many political operatives -- Cornfield says participants should use their real names and identify themselves as part of a campaign participation program (as in, "I'm Mike Cornfield, and I'm part of the McCain Action Team").
He also says "germaneness" is an issue: "Talking points are fine, but a comment should refer specifically to something that was said or written previously in the thread where it is intended to appear."
McCain should reconsider the program for an entirely different reason, says Zach Exley, who directed online organizing for John Kerry's Democratic presidential campaign in 2004. Both the Kerry campaign and the GOP's national committee, he said, had underwhelming results when they offered incentives of various kinds to volunteers.
"This stuff never works," Exley says. "People in politics aren't motivated by points. That's not what gets people to act. They're motivated by genuinely caring about the issues."
Indeed, he adds, some volunteers resent points and incentives because they think it demeans or devalues their work.
This might explain why some of the Web sites targeted by McCain's program haven't noticed much of a surge in pro-McCain comments.
David Wissing, the founder of the Hedgehog Report, a blog about Maryland politics, said his comment traffic has been running about 60 percent conservative and 40 percent liberal in recent weeks, which is typical. Wissing said he keeps an eye on reader comments -- he recently banned a poster for using multiple screen names -- and hasn't seen postings that use similar or identical language, usually a telltale sign of an AstroTurf program.
Another political blogger, David Adams, who runs Kentucky-centric Kyprogress.org, was unaware that McCain's campaign had listed his site as a target for comments until he was told about it by a reporter Friday. He questioned how much good such messages would do in any case. Kentucky, he points out, is a solidly Republican state that probably will vote overwhelmingly for McCain in the fall.
"Our eight votes are going to McCain no matter what he or Barack Obama says," Adams said of the electoral college.