Surprise! You wrote a letter to the newspaper

VOICING YOUR OPINION. For better or worse, sending letters to the editor can now be a three-click task.

| 22 Jan 2024 | 01:56

Between Jan. 2 and Jan. 5, Straus News received nine very similar letters to the editor, warning against the dangers of a second Trump presidency.

They were signed with names of real people within our readership area, along with zip codes of their towns.

The subject lines had been modified in most cases: “Democracy Will Crumble Under a Trump Presidency,” “January 6th Was Just the Beginning for Trump” and “Trump Must Be Stopped in 2024.”

After the first letter ran in The Chronicle, one of the nine Straus community newspapers, the supposed author and his wife came into the office to explain that he had not written to the paper ­­­­­and was surprised when a friend had congratulated him on his letter. As a small business owner, the Chester, N.Y., resident keeps his political opinions private.

“I’m going to be more careful,” said the Chester business owner. He asked that we not re-use his name. “I didn’t write that. I may have signed something that gave them permission to use my name.”

Another signer of a similar letter, from Milford, Pa., said that she was not the writer, either, when we tracked her down on Facebook. However, a Jan. 4 post on her Facebook page linking back to Stand Up America, the progressive group behind the “Stop Trump in 2024” letter-writing campaign, suggested that she had indeed clicked through the pages that resulted in a letter landing in our inbox.

Two other writers of similar letters, Barbara Zukose of Warwick, N.Y., and Mabel Roy of Rockaway Township, N.J., did intend to write to the newspaper.

Zukose has been a member of Stand Up America since 2016, since which time she has been writing letters to the editor about once a month. “And I call Congress almost on a daily basis. I sign every petition. I used to live in DC and was going to all the protests,” Zukose, a retired mental health professional, said. “My voice gets heard.”

How Stand Up America works

Stand Up America is a digital nonprofit founded in 2016, now counting about a million members on their email and text lists. Founder Sean Eldridge is a political activist, former New York State congressional candidate and the spouse of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes.

Around 2019, Stand Up America began using the services of Canadian company New/Mode, a cutting edge digital engagement platform tailored to campaigns. The New/Mode package that includes the Letter to the Editors feature starts at $349 per month.

New/Mode explains on its website: “Our Letters to the Editors Action works by connecting supporters to their local papers. When letter writers provide a postal code, our databases automatically connect to their most relevant nearby publications.”

New/Mode goes on to suggest: “Write multiple email subject lines and randomize them so that letters look like an interested individual is just spontaneously emailing the editor. The more subject lines you provide, the better. You don’t want editors seeing the same subject line appearing over and over again in their inbox!”

“The problem ... has never come up’

Stand Up America users have sent more than 83,000 letters to the editor since the tool launched five years ago. This was the first time the company has heard a complaint about an inadvertent letter, said Monica Garcia, Stand Up America’s managing director for communications.

“I’m unclear on how someone could submit a letter without realizing it,” Garcia said. A user has to click through two pages, enter their name and zip code and see the editable text of the letter as well as a checklist of newspapers to which the letter will be sent, she explained.

The user has the option to edit the letter, but even if they don’t, the New/Mode platform produces emails with different variations of the text and subject line. All the content, however, was originally written by a human at Stand Up America.

No AI at this time

Artificial intelligence is not involved in the creation of the text – yet.

A December blog post from New/Mode founder Steve Anderson expresses excitement at the prospect of leveraging AI to create a more powerful “Campaign Strategist.”

“We’ve long used AI technologies to support campaigners, but for the most part, it’s been behind the scenes in our platform,” Anderson said.

Sometimes Zukose, of Warwick, makes changes to the text suggested by Stand Up America. “It really depends on the letter and if it speaks to what I want to say – kind of 50/50,” said Zukose.

Straus News received letters

An inbox search reveals that Straus News has received letters to the editor in the past from the email address, which sent the latest cluster. (Straus News has blocked the email address in response to the problem of inadvertent letters.)

A letter titled, “Trump committed crimes against Georgia and our country,” one of a few similar letters we received in the fall, ran in The Warwick Advertiser in October. That letter appears to have originated from Common Cause, another digital advocacy group that uses New/Mode’s services. New/Mode did not return a call by press time.

The writer of the October letter, from New Hampton, N.Y., said, “I don’t even recall it,” when reached by phone. “No, I wouldn’t have sent that at all to the press,” he said, upon being read part of the letter. “Please do not use my name. Thank you,” he said, and hung up.

His letter, however, had already run months earlier.

‘The postcard or letter to the editor route’

For Roy, 71, a retired teacher and banker, Stand Up America provides a helpful prod to take action.“

Mostly what it does for me is it reminds me. If I’m watching TV, I see something on TV that I don’t like, and it kind of kicks me in the butt.”

Roy has been marching on Washington since the 70s – for gay rights, Civil Rights, Roe v. Wade - and more recently in 2018 to protest the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination with a group from the ACLU, and in Morristown and Newark to protest the separation of immigrant children from their families.

The last time she went to a march, “I physically found, no I can’t really do this,” she said. “Can’t do the walking that much anymore like I was, so you know, you try to do something else. And since I can’t do that anymore, physically I really don’t have the stamina, I go the postcard route or letter to the editor route.”

Last year, Roy sent out 800 postcards for MoveOn, “not pushing people either way, more that they need to get out and vote,” she said. She has sent two letters to the editor in the past year or so, she said.

Many friends around her age “are very upset about what might be coming down the pike,” said Roy. “A lot of the younger generation don’t realize if we lose our democracy we lose everything.”