The Santelli Conspiracy?*

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Update: As Megan McArdle notes, this story appears to be completely bogus.

Was Rick Santelli's "Chicago Tea Party" a spontaneous expression of populist outrage? Or was it a carefully orchestrated media campaign that was planned long before Santelli's now-famous socialist-bashing CNBC rant? Mark Ames and Yasha Levine suggest that Santelli's mini-movement was in fact bought and paid for by a network of right-of-center moguls led by the Koch family, best known for their outsized backing of libertarian causes.

Within hours of Santelli's rant, a website called ChicagoTeaParty.com sprang to life. Essentially inactive until that day, it now featured a YouTube video of Santelli's "tea party" rant and billed itself as the official home of the Chicago Tea Party.

So where did the website come from?

ChicagoTeaParty.com was just one part of a larger network of Republican sleeper-cell-blogs set up over the course of the past few months, all of them tied to a shady rightwing advocacy group coincidentally named the "Sam Adams Alliance," whose backers have until now been kept hidden from public. Cached google records that we discovered show that the Sam Adams Alliance took pains to scrub its deep links to the Koch family money as well as the fake-grassroots "tea party" protests going on today. All of these roads ultimately lead back to a more notorious rightwing advocacy group, FreedomWorks, a powerful PR organization headed by former Republican House Majority leader Dick Armey and funded by Koch money.

Thus far, this doesn't seem too ominous. It is easy to imagine that Santelli travels in libertarian and conservative circles, and that the idea of launching a "Chicago Tea Party" has been brewing for some time. Lest we forget, the original Boston Tea Party was also a carefully orchestrated media event that used high-flown rhetoric to oppose a tax measure that many cool-headed observers considered entirely innocuous.

That said, Ames and Levine do allude to a real problem: the extreme credulity of news outlets that take astroturfing campaigns at face value. And it's not just news outlets: federal regulatory agencies are also susceptible to fake-grassroots campaigns. Last month, Nicholas Thompson had an insightful piece in Wired on "The Plot to Kil Google," an effort by several Google rivals to encourage antitrust action against the search giant by means of sullying its reputation. Their most effective weapon? A PR firm called LMG that specializes in launching ... fake-grassroots campaigns.

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Reihan Salam is a policy advisor at Economics 21, a columnist for The Daily, and a blogger for National Review Online.

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