Pro-immigration group working on encouraging supporters to post talking points to offer counterpoints to negative comments on news stories 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. "If we can keep up a steady presence, then eventually there will be readers," said Rachel Heuman, an immigration rights advocate from Evanston who has organized her own 25-person response team. "I just feel that we have to do everything in our power to reach whomever we can reach." 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." Comment boards are a frequently unruly online feature. And though most news organizations try to address incivility, they typically do not attempt to highlight alternative viewpoints. Bill Adee, the Tribune's vice president of digital operations, said that is best left to readers, who increasingly are able to use filters to control the comments that show up on their computers. "If you are ready for anything, great," he said. "If you only see what your friends say, that's fine too." But the immigration advocates say the commentary following news stories has become so unrelentingly negative that it presents an inaccurate picture of the issue. "If there isn't anything that's kind of supportive (of immigrant rights), then there's no place where (readers) will see anything like that," said Amalia Pallares, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who started a Facebook-based comment team in May. 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. In June, one of the bloggers targeted a WMAQ-Ch. 5 piece on undocumented soldiers, encouraging others to counter the "furious" votes dominating a poll that accompanied the story. Within two hours, they had tipped the balance to "thrilled." It's hard to gauge how such a victory might swing public opinion. Nick Diakopoulos, a communications scholar at Rutgers University, said researchers have yet to discern the persuasive power of online comment forums. But other communication studies suggest that any influence probably would be minimal, he said. People who hold strong viewpoints often exercise "selective exposure," where they avoid or tune out information that challenges their beliefs. "If people are really polarized, are they even going to read this stuff?" he said. 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." Gheen, of ALIPAC, said he, too, encourages civil, fact-based discussion (immigration critics often are dismissed as racists, he said), but it's not easy to stick to the high road. Consider the experience of Cynthia Brito, a graduate student in UIC's Latin American and Latino studies program. She's part of the Comment Corps, and this month she leaped into the fray after the Daily Herald published a story about a protest over alleged police harassment of Hispanics. The great majority of the comments criticized the protesters, and when Brito tried to present a different opinion, her posts were buried under a barrage of "thumbs down" votes (more than four generally hides the comment from view). She had no better luck when, trying to dispel the notion that Hispanics are crime-prone, she cited an article by a Harvard sociologist that found that Mexican-Americans displayed lower levels of violence than whites or blacks. "I don't need to read a BS article by a liberal professor," another commenter retorted. "(Reading) the Daily Herald alone will tell you otherwise, having several cops in the family will tell you otherwise, knowing the crime rate in Mexico, one of the most violent countries in the world, will tell you otherwise." Brito eventually gave up the argument in frustration. "Why would I even attempt to discuss ANYTHING with such a close-minded person?" she replied to one persistent critic. "With every post you prove your blind hate and ignorance to reality. You have my pity." Brito said later that though jousting on the comment boards could be disheartening, she was determined to continue the virtual struggle. "Reading these articles online, everyone reads the comments," she said. "And when they see the majority of people writing (critical posts), it does have an impact. It's not a closed system where it stays within the Internet. It does spread." Illegal immigration comment corps: Immigration advocates form comment corps to spread pro-immigration message in online forums - chicagotribune.com ---------------------------------------------------------------- LA RAZA terrorists will now be attacking media conducted polls and message boards to distort the way genuine Americans really feel about the invasion of the United States by Latin America, specifically Mexico. I think this is right out of "Mein Kampf" by Adolph Hitler. It sure worked for him. "Keep Spreading Lies And Truth Disappears."