Margriet Oostveen describes in Salon.com
how she composed phony letters-to-the-editor on behalf of the McCain campaign:
The assignment is simple: We are going to write letters to the editor and we are allowed to make up whatever we want -- as long as it adds to the campaign. After today we are supposed to use our free moments at home to create a flow of fictional fan mail for McCain. "Your letters," says Phil Tuchman, "will be sent to our campaign offices in battle states. Ohio. Pennsylvania. Virginia. New Hampshire. There we'll place them in local newspapers." ...
"We will show your letters to our supporters in those states," explains Phil. "If they say: 'Yeah, he/she is right!' then we ask them to sign your letter. And then we send that letter to the local newspaper. That's how we send dozens of letters at once."
This is called "astroturf" (i.e. an artificial grassroots campaign). It's a popular campaign strategy. Basically a variation on the fake testimonial technique in advertising.
Some notable moments in the history of Astroturf:
• In 2003 democrats noticed similar letters in support of President Bush's economic policies appearing in papers such as the Boston Globe, the Cincinnati Post, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The letters all began with the line: "When it comes to the economy, President Bush is demonstrating genuine leadership." The letter was traced back to a Republican website, gopteamleader.com, that had posted it and was encouraging readers to print it out and send it to local papers.
• In 1997, when the Justice Department was suing Microsoft for violating antitrust laws, Utah's attorney general noticed he was receiving numerous pro-Microsoft letters peppered with similar phrases such as "strong competition and innovation have been the twin hallmarks of the technology industry." Upon closer investigation, he discovered that some of the letters came from people who were dead. It turned out Microsoft was composing the letters and then sending them to individuals who had expressed positive sentiments about Microsoft in phone polls. The individuals were instructed to sign the letters and forward them to their attorney general. But unfortunately for Microsoft, some of the individuals had died in between being polled and receiving the letter. Their family members, thinking the letter was some kind of official document, had signed the letter and forwarded it on with a note explaining the situation, thereby exposing the whole scheme.
(Thanks, Bob and Joe!)