Encouraging your supporters to get out and support you through social media, including blog comments, seems like fair game, but US presidential candidate Senator John McCain (R-AZ) is taking a step further and perhaps a step too far, according to some observers. McCain’s web site has an area under the header Spread the Word in which the campaign encourages visitors to “spread the word about John McCain on news and blog sites” by leaving comments about why to support McCain. The site links to a number of prominent political blogs, both liberal and conservative, with instructions to “go there, and make your opinions supporting John McCain known.”
What has rubbed people the wrong way is that McCain is incentivizing blog comments with a points system. “Once you’ve commented on a post, video or news story, report the details of your comment by clicking the button below. After your comments are verified, you will be awarded points through the McCain Online Action Center,” says the site. The points can be redeemed for McCain merchandise and items, such as signed books and VIP seating at events.
In essence, McCain is paying supporters to comment on blogs with McCain talking points (the “Spread the Word” page links to daily talking points, though to be fair it does fall short of providing an actual script for comments, as implied by some media reports).
The Washington Post compares the points-for-comments scheme to “political AstroTurfing,” an old practice in which volunteers or paid staff are used to seed radio call-in shows or newspaper editorials with what seems to be genuine calls and letters. We don’t think it’s quite that bad — McCain is encouraging actual supporters to post blog comments, not paid staff or campaign volunteers, so he isn’t really manufacturing grassroots support. But he is leaning on his supporters to do something that sets a bad precedent.
And there are some real problems with how he’s set up the program, points or no points, according to the Washington Post:
[Michael] 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.”
By essentially paying to seed third-party blogs with comments from supporters, McCain’s tactics remind us of BuyBlogComments, a service that was launched last summer and was almost universally panned by bloggers (including by me). Paying for blog comments is not a good way to win support among the Internet grassroots, and we’d advise McCain to drop the program and focus efforts elsewhere (like perhaps trying to keep his surprising new lead in YouTube views).