Lefty Blogs, Duped By Student Project, Claim to Unearth 'Secret' Astroturf Campaign

One can't help but be a bit stunned at the audacity of an organization built by Morton Halperin and George Soros lecturing others on "astroturfing." But that same audacity -- not the good Barack Obama kind -- is taken to extremes when that same organization alleges a corporate conspiracy where there simply is none.

Think Progress's Lee Fang was practically giddy that he had uncovered the next vast right-wing conspiracy, proclaiming that a powerpoint "obtained" by the website "reveals how the telecom industry is orchestrating the latest campaign against Net Neutrality" via layers of astroturfing "front groups."

In reality, the powerpoint was the creation not of the giant telecoms that quite openly oppose Net Neutrality, but rather of six students in a contest at a "think tank MBA" program held by the Atlas Economic Research Foundation. The whole project cost under $200. And far from being "secret," as Fang claimed, the powerpoint was posted online, as was the audio of the students' presentation to the contest's judges. Some astroturf!

As Declan McCullagh reported for CNET News today,
There's just one problem with Think Progress' claim: It's not, well, accurate…

"The Think Progress article is hilarious," David MacLean, the Canadian member of the six-person student team from four different continents, told CNET on Wednesday. "We've had a really good laugh in the last day over this. This is one of the funniest things I've ever seen."

MacLean added: "It was a class project done at the Atlas think tank MBA program. We came up with the concept in a few days." Part of Atlas' curriculum on how to manage think tanks required creating the campaign on a $100 budget and "the goal was to make it launch," said MacLean, who lives in Alberta…

Kristin McMurray, the American member of the team, said: "We have not had any contact with any telecom company during this campaign. The only funding we received was the $100 given to us by Atlas." The campaign actually ended up costing the students money, since they chipped in some of their own cash, said McMurray, an editor at the Sunshine Review, a nonpartisan organization that pushes state and local governments to post more information online.

Lefty blogs were apparently averse to checking Fang's claims, and applauded the him for his stellar (so they thought) investigative work. "ThinkProgress has a leaked copy of a telcoms [sic] industry PowerPoint presentation laying out their plans to use astroturf to kill Network Neutrality," wrote Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing. "The industry is hiring the same turfers who work with the Tea Party movement to carry their message to the people."

A blogger at Stop the Cap claimed that "Groups like NoNetBrutality [the group of students who created the powerpoint] are designed to hide their true ties and claim they are run by ordinary concerned citizens making their individual voices heard. Too bad that PowerPoint presentation blew the lid off by telling a much different story."

Of course the powerpoint didn't blow the lid off of anything, and the project was never a secret. Since CNET posted its revelatory piece, Stop the Cap has reverted to questioning the integrity of the six students who created the project, saying they are "budding to learn the craft of sock-puppetry." I suppose that's better than making up conspiracy theories and playing false populist.

For its part, Think Progress has been reduced to claiming that telecoms are "orchestrating the latest campaign against Net Neutrality" by funding, in part, Americans for Tax Reform, which holds a weekly meeting that the NoNetBrutality folks once attended. Seriously. This is now what passes for a vast right-wing conspiracy in the annals of the lefty blogosphere.

For the record, the folks at NoNetBrutality displayed their expenses in full in a post on their site:

  • Domain: $20 (we got .org too)
  • Hosting: $10.95
  • Logo: Pro bono, but he did a great job right?
  • I-stockphoto: $18
  • Copies for the Wednesday meeting: $125. Yes, we went over budget and used our own personal funds to supplement it.

Watch out Free Press, the telecoms are unleashing their fury, a half-dozen students at a time!

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