Gay Marriage Foes Accused of Astroturfing

Author: Kate Kaye
Publication: Click-Z
Publication Date: August 4th, 2011

In February, the owner of a Facebook page opposed to same sex marriage told people using fake profiles they weren't welcome to comment there. Today, the page's owner has publicly changed his stance to support gay marriage. And he claims the anti-gay marriage group for which he once ran the Facebook page organized covert operatives to counteract marriage equality supporters online.

As social media manager for the National Organization for Marriage, Louis J. Marinelli, the then 24-year-old behind the "Protect Marriage: One Man, One Woman" page, was asked to put together a "SWAT team" of people to comment in favor of NOM's content and opinions. "There was a system where we would track what they did and they would accumulate points.... We were working on a program where they would redeem those points for prizes," said Marinelli.

The group also planned to create media teams in key 2012 election states who would be asked to take online actions as well as attend events or write letters to editors, according to Marinelli. When he resigned on April 7, he said about 15 people were on the online astroturf team.

The war over same sex marriage intensified leading up to the passage of New York's Marriage Equality Act, and will continue as groups on both sides gear up for fights over the federal Defense of Marriage Act, as well as statewide same sex marriage laws in California, Minnesota and elsewhere. The Internet promises to be a significant battleground.

Beating Gay Marriage Supporters at Their Own Game

A concern for NOM, according to Marinelli, is that pro-same sex marriage (SSM) groups seem to have more active supporters online. NOM wants to boost its social media supporter base, as evinced in a recent campaign promoted on its NationForMarriage.org site:

"A generous donor has presented us with a unique challenge. For every new Facebook Like, Twitter Follow, and SMS Text Message Sign-up between now and September 1st, NOM will receive one dollar, up to $100,000!"

Explained Marinelli, "[NOM is] very focused on growing their numbers and their online status and size."

NOM launched LetThePeopleVote.com to help promote a series of rallies in New York held in June and July in response to passage of the state's Marriage Equality Act. NOM’s @NOMTweets and @LetPeopleVote Twitter accounts are very active, and typically feature multiple posts each day, many linking to articles related to SSM.

The group also posts regularly to its current Facebook page, Facebook.com/NationForMarriage, created the day after Marinelli quit. Since its April 8 inception, the page has built up more than 20,000 likes. Marinelli's Protect Marriage page features a profile image that reads, "Former National Organization for Marriage Operative," and has more than 274,000 likes. According to Marinelli, the five-year-old page reached over 291,000 likes at one point.

Despite NOM's attention to Twitter and Facebook, and obvious desire to spur action in social media channels, Maggie Gallagher, NOM's chairman of the board, told ClickZ in an email, "I would not say that Facebook and Twitter are hugely important in our model. Email fundraising is. We do plan to continue to investigate how new media strategies can help our cause." NOM did not respond to multiple follow-up interview requests for comment about the so-called SWAT team.

Online Advocacy Astroturfing: A Gray Area

Compensating people to show up at rallies or even vote has long been a tactic tainting the underbelly of politics and advocacy, and there's no doubt the approach has spread online, as the invention of the term astroturfing indicates. Now that word-of-mouth marketing is considered a legitimate corporate marketing practice, it has ethical guidelines associated with it that prohibit online communications planted by advertisers without disclosure.

The Federal Trade Commission has guidelines for commercial entities regarding disclosure of relationships and compensation for online endorsements. But regulation of online endorsement activity is cloudier in the non-profit and advocacy realm. "It is a best practice to disclose compensation or relationships; while the FTC has limited authority to enforce that best practice against non profits and others, they should take it upon themselves to do so," said FTC spokesperson Claudia Bourne Farrell.

"It is common to communicate with bloggers and other online influentials behind the scenes, just as a PR professional would email a reporter or take one to lunch, but that's a far cry from hiring people to post online," said Colin Delany, chief editor of Epolitics.com, and a digital consultant who works with left-leaning groups. "Most professional social media communications firms have strict policies about disclosure, since they're typically very conscious of the possibility of blowback."

Using Video to Tell Personal Tales

Freedom to Marry is among the pro-SSM groups that, according to Marinelli, NOM considers "direct competition." Human Rights Campaign is another. NOM tracks its social media followings in comparison to these organizations, he said.

As part of its campaign supporting NY's Marriage Equality Act, Freedom to Marry produced a web video featuring Richard and John, who have been a couple for 61 years. Months after its April 25 launch, the video has been viewed around 67,000 times and still garners positive responses on YouTube - the most recent from less than a week ago. An overlay ad on the video asks "Haven't they waited long enough?" and links to its site. The "Richard and John" video has far more likes - 840 - than dislikes - 14.

The most viewed video on NOM's YouTube channel - an interview with retired New York Giants wide receiver David Tyree - was viewed almost 65,000 times, but has attracted more negative responses than positive, with 473 likes and 778 dislikes.

Video is an important medium for Freedom to Marry, as it allows the organization to tell the stories of people affected by marriage laws. "A lot of it is focused around personal stories," said Michael Crawford, director of online programs at Freedom to Marry. "We very rarely talk about it in terms of rights.... It's about love and commitment."

The group's RoadMap to Victory video, created by Blue State Digital, outlines its "three track strategy to end marriage discrimination in the United States." It, too, features an overlay ad on YouTube, which links to a FreedomtoMarry.org page encouraging people to share the video via email, Facebook, and Twitter. Many of the group's videos spotlighting gay couples are featured on its WhyMarriageMatters.org site, part of a public education campaign aimed at convincing persuadable heterosexual people to support same sex marriage.

Personal tales swayed Marinelli. "I spent all of my time when I worked for NOM advocating against marriage equality through a computer screen. When I met the people I was talking about, I had a change of heart."

 

Blue State also works with the organization to develop creative for Facebook ads and determine appropriate ad targets. Facebook ads promoting an open letter to President Barack Obama featured celebrities who signed the letter, such as Ellen DeGeneres, and were targeted to people who like those celebs on Facebook. The letter, similar to an online petition, has been "signed" by more than 116,000 people online, and also serves as a means of collecting fresh email addresses of supporters.

"We use Facebook a lot, particularly in terms of building our supporter base," said Crawford, noting that base has grown from under 10,000 people a year and a half ago to over 300,000 today. "Facebook advertising has been instrumental in that growth," he said.

According to Marinelli, NOM aimed to improve its organic search rankings as well as sponsored links on Google. Many recent searches on terms like "gay marriage" and "same sex marriage" bring up ads for gay marriage services including wedding officiants or destinations. Some turn up ads for groups including Freedom to Marry and Human Rights Campaign. Catholic Advocate is also running search ads linking to a donation page declaring, "Make no mistake about it: the institution of marriage is under attack."