John Pinckney, of Muncie, Indiana, thinks President Bush is “demonstrating genuine leadership” in steering the US economy. So do Kyle Klink, of Rochester, New York; Stephanie Johnson, of Milton, Massachusetts; and Michael Snyder, of Merced, California. Recently, they and three dozen other people have published identical letters to media sites including the Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune — with the help of some online political maneuvering.
The source of these letters is GOP Team Leader, a site operated by the Republican National Committee. With a few mouse clicks, members of GOP Team Leader can log on to the site, forward messages to media outlets and collect points they can later exchange for prizes.
Critics said the RNC was using Web tools to simulate grass-roots support — a technique known as an “astroturf” campaign.
Online communications director for the RNC in Washington, DC, Chuck DeFeo, said: “We’re just trying to use technology to get people more involved in the political process.”
DeFeo said the letter had been published about 44 times, but he denied the astroturf charge.
The GOP site’s Action Center makes it easy to search for print and broadcast outlets by geographic area, then fire off a prefab letter or compose one of your own.
DeFeo said that members were encouraged to edit text in the prewritten letters or add their own comments.
The payoff? The site awards GOPoints that letter senders can accumulate and spend on a variety of goods. For example, you collect five points for contacting the media and another two if the outlet publishes your letter. When you reach 95 points, you can trade them in for a Team Leader mouse pad. Other prizes include T-shirts (185 points), portable coolers (375 points), or leather portfolios (525 points).
Using the Web to mass-mail prewritten letters is nothing new, but the RNC’s incentive program was “innovative,” former press secretary for the Clinton administration, Mike McCurry, said.
McCurry is now chief executive of Grassroots Enterprises, a company that offers CD resources and technological tools for political campaigns.
“They’re bringing e-commerce techniques to political mobilisation,” McCurry said. “Our technology is capable of doing all the same stuff, but we don’t incorporate tchotchkes [promotional items emblazoned with company logos] the way the RNC is doing.”
Republicans are far from the only ones using Web technology to spur political action. Just take a look around.