Keyed Into Debate

John Keilman, Chicago Tribune, March 20, 2011

When the Tribune and Sun-Times recently posted stories dealing with immigration, Sara McElmurry saw a familiar dynamic take shape. The online comments following the pieces were heavily negative, with some casting immigrants as parasites or welfare cheats.

So McElmurry, communications manager for the Chicago-based advocacy group Latino Policy Forum, shot an email to her “Comment Corps”–a list of 3,000 people she asks to intervene when she believes online comments have become bigoted or monolithic.

“Balance the rhetoric of fear by posting your own comment, using the talking points below as a guide,” she wrote. “It takes only a few moments to make your voice heard!”

McElmurry and some like-minded allies are trying to influence opinion by engaging their foes in the new media’s public square. By presenting their arguments in forums they see as one-sided, they hope to counter what they regard as misinformation and sway at least a few hearts and minds.

{snip}

But William Gheen of the Internet-savvy Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, which is critical of what it views as the nation’s lax border control, says the effort reveals the weakness of the pro-immigration cause.

His organization sends emails to more than 40,000 subscribers, he said, but he rarely asks anyone to comment on a news story.

“Usually, we don’t have to,” he said. “Seventy to 80 percent of Americans feel the same way that we do.”

{snip}

But the immigration advocates say the commentary following news stories has become so unrelentingly negative that it presents an inaccurate picture of the issue.

{snip}

Her 50-person group, which calls itself the Blog Squad, was inspired in part by the angry conversations surrounding Arizona’s crackdown on illegal immigrants. Members flagged news items that originated in outlets from the Huffington Post to Reuters and sought help in posting positive comments.

The group also tried to influence the discussion by rallying friends to vote in online surveys. {snip}

McElmurry, of the Latino Policy Forum, started her Comment Corps just a month ago. Her email alerts include talking points meant to lend credibility to pro-immigration posts, an approach she believes will prove more effective than angry confrontation.

“What we see online is really fear-driven and very emotional and, from my perspective, not the most rational (argument),” she said. “If we can provide sound, truthful counterstatements to that and let people know the truth about the Latino population in this country, that’s perhaps better than stoking the flames.”

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