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Santelli Conspiracy Theory Redux

By now, have seen the YouTube clip of exasperated CNBC anchor Rick Santelli ranting about Pres. Obama’s proposed homeowner bailout plan on the floor of the Chicago commodities exchange. The video quickly went viral, amplified by the ample conservative blogosphere. According to the Associated Press, Santelli’s wild screed has been viewed almost 2 million times on CNBC’s website and, as of the time of this writing, 855,502 times on YouTube.

This high visibility sparked not only the ire of a testy White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, but also what seemed like populist rage over the bailout. Santelli’s call for a “Chicago tea party” was immediately met with enthusiastic netizens organizing “tea parties” of their own to boycott the stimulus.

Or so it seemed.

Perhaps (like the original Boston Tea Party; hat tip: Reihan Salam) it was all just an elaborate PR stunt. Perhaps Santelli’s outburst was the trigger and cover for a massive astro-turfing campaign to generate “grassroots” opposition to the bailout.

Last Friday, Playboy published an article (since yanked, though The Atlantic‘s Megan McArdle has the full text here) by Mark Ames and Yasha Levine, purporting exactly this. It alleged that a vast libertarian conspiracy funded by the wealthy businessmen Ed Koch intentionally planted and scripted the Santelli affair, closely managing and stoking the fire of internet and media exposure.

These would-be muckrakers pointed to cached Google sites where the names of think tankers with connections to the story had been “scrubbed” to make the maelstrom seem spontaneous. A domain name registered last August ( ominously pointed to pre-meditated social agitation. Soon, the story passed from the right-wing to the left-wing echo chamber. Yglesias, among others, dove for the conspiracy bait.

Just as quickly as the theory multiplied, so did it begin to fall apart, roughly the span of the weekend. The attack on Santelli the libertarian pawn turned out to be as speculative as it was plainly libelous. Ironically, the conspiracy theorists now seemed themselves like astro-turfing conspirators, pseudo-journalists out to discredit Santelli’s supporters. One of the authors, Ames, turns out to have his own back story, including a lawsuit over a fake interview with Maroon 5 lead man Adam Levine. As to the domain name, McArdle’s ears perked up:

The smoking gun, to the extent that there is one, is the “chicagoteaparty” domain.  But the timing doesn’t work.  No one in August knew that there were going to be massive bailouts and stimulus packages against which they could protest.

Playboy quickly dropped the article, though this did not kill it. In fact, the same dedicated army of bloggers which had sponged up the dubious claims in the first place began to pick apart and to disseminate the text of the article, saved from browser windows left open.

I’m still chewing over what this bizarre episode means. Does it point to the gullibility of the blogosphere or the power of its crowd-sourced factchecking? Both? When I get a moment tomorrow, I’ll sketch some deeper thoughts. For the moment, just savor it and beware the wily Kochtopus

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6 Responses to “Santelli Conspiracy Theory Redux”

  1. TJ Says:

    Looks like it’s taken an even weirder turn back again. Did you read the NY Times account? Santelli is in the dog house with CNBC, had to cancel his Daily Show appearance, Freedomworks seems to have admitted they backed the tea parties, and now Ames and Levine are gloating about it all. Wild stuff.

  2. » Santelli Barometer I&D Blog Says:

    […] Party” movement. After the Playboy article broke 2/27 (for more back story, see my summary here), however, the video must have shifted interest, as news of a right wing astro-turf machine spread […]

  3. » The Future of Fact Checking I&D Blog Says:

    […] is part of massive libertarian astroturf conspiracy” on the left (for background, see here). The blogospheric rumor mill can churn at an alarming pace. But in important ways, it’s not […]

  4. » Taking Media Cloud For A Drive I&D Blog Says:

    […] a test drive. I wanted to find the keywords surrounding the recent Rick Santelli hubbub (full story here), and see if they revealed anything significant about the story. So I input “Rick […]

  5. Internet & Democracy Blog » Santelli Not Participating In Tea Parties Says:

    […] short-lived Playboy article had accused Santelli of planting his reference to an anti-stimulus Boston tea party protest as part […]

  6. Dueling AstroTurf « Cinie’s World Says:

    […] Rick Santelli as a right wing plant, which was almost immediately pulled, but debated and printed in its’ entirety many places, including in this Meghan McArdle Atlantic column […]