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“Replicant” theory emerges in US Astroturf scandal

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A new theory emerged today to rebuff the "Astroturf" scandal that's the talk of the web. A week ago a weblogger who calls himself Atrios discovered that identical letters praising "the leadership of President Bush" had appeared in dozens of local American newspapers.

Before Christmas, Mr.Atrios - whoever he is - had done much enterprising research to discomfort, and eventually help depose the Republican Senate Leader Trent Lott, after Lott's wistful, pro-segregation remarks at a birthday dinner for centenarian racist Strom Thurmond went unnoticed by the poodle mainstream press, here.

The identical letters appeared in 29 publications - including, oops - The Financial Times of London, England - and clearly suggested that a co-ordinated but entirely phony "grassroots" expression of support was swelling behind the President.

However Declan McCullagh has a brillant alternative, and surely satirical explanation.

Notified of these occurrences, McClunker very wisely warned us not to jump to conclusions. Rather than it being an organized campaign, he wrote on his Politech mailing list, the possibility remained that the phrases could have emanated from Republican mailing literature.

"I don't think we have nearly enough facts here to make a reasoned conclusion," he noted.

Upon receiving these mailings, he posits, dozens of Republicans could have individually made the decision at that very moment, to all walk over to their computers and write a letter to their local newspaper praising "the leadership of President Bush:.

Or as he put it:-

"An explanation could be as simple as Republican direct mail efforts using this phrase, which the recipients echo in letters to the editor."

McClunker's right: this isn't impossible. However it is exceedingly unusual, and it is a form of behavior - this synchronized groupthink - that is usually attributed to Zombies, or replicant armies in sci-fi movies.

Older readers may remember how in The Manchurian Candidate the Laurence Harvey (not Frank Sinatra) assassin was "woken" to his mission by the use of subliminal code-words. So in McClunker's witty satire (we charitably assume he's being satirical), the direct mail recipients simply parroted what they'd read in that morning's instructional campaign mail, and responded to the subliminal signal.

Now, who's foolin' who here here isn't clear.

One important contextual point to note about American politics (for you overseas readers) is that back in 1995 when Gingrich routed the Congress, the libertarian talk-radio right thought of itself as "guerillas", and using imaginative tactics, and wit, to scored easy points against a complacent and inert centre-right exemplified by the venal President Pantsdown. Only now, the "guerillas" have their very own man in charge. So instead of choosing to remain witty or anarchic, they've dropped the guerilla chic, and now rally around in patterns of extreme predictability, making it easy for wittier and much more playful and anarchic writers such as Atrios (or Bob Somerby) to run rings around them.

You don't really have to be clever to shoot down groupthink, but you have to have balls to call it when you see it, and Sommersby and Atrios are more than up to task. There's nothing easier than herding sheep.

Not all former guerillas have turned into blogsphere mutton, though. There's a libertarian writer I respect very much, a contrarian called Gene Callahan, who's allied with the far-right Mises Institute but who's stayed consistently funny and fair. (And his social satire is hilarious). But Callahan's an exception to the groupthink rule.

McCullagh has alerted us to the power of co-ordinated groupthink, for which, he has our thanks. ®

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