Like the EPA, DOT, and other government agencies, the FCC provides a public comment period for American citizens to weigh in about important issues that will affect them. The FCC uses the comments, most of which are gathered electronically through their website, to influence their decisions on things like net neutrality.
It’s all part of the democratic process! And, of course, an electronic comment filing system is totally not in any way open to any kind of spambot abuse, never, nope, not at all, of course not. Um…
God bless the nerds. Last Thursday, data scientist Jeff Kao did a language analysis of all the Net Neutrality comments on the FCC’s website from April-October 2017 to look for suspicious patterns. In the largest "cluster" of pro-repeal comments, Kao found that though each of the comments were unique, “the tone, language, and meaning across each comment was largely uniform.”
Kao identified various combinations of phrasing in these comments and found that they all came from one original source. Here's an example:
It turns out that there are 1.3 million of these. Each sentence in the faked comments looks like it was generated by a computer program. A mail merge swapped in a synonym for each term to generate unique-sounding comments. It was like mad-libs, except for astroturf.
"Astroturfing" is using fake identities and comments on the internet to make it appear as if there is widespread grassroots support for an issue.
But not all the comments Kao analyzed were fake. There were organic comments, too, that Kao determined came from real, living people—about 800,000 of them—and 99 percent of those were pro-Net Neutrality.
And this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Last week, New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman announced in an open letter to the FCC that his office had been investigating fake anti-net-neutrality comments that used real names and emails of tens of thousands of New York state residents for the last six months.
“That’s akin to identity theft, and it happened on a massive scale,” he wrote.
According to Schneiderman, the FCC hasn’t exactly been cooperating, with the investigation, either—they haven’t responded to his nine record requests for information. Additionally, a journalist is now suing the FCC for not fulfilling a Freedom of Information request about the comments.
And last month, a data analytics company discovered that only 17 percent of net neutrality submitted comments were “unique,” which means they were from real people (95 percent of them supported net neutrality). The report said most of rest of the comments “come in batches with obviously incorrect information — over 1,000,000 comments in July claimed to have a pornhub.com email address.”
(For the record, Pornhub as a company supports Net Neutrality.)