Survey after survey has shown that the public overwhelmingly opposed the Trump FCC’s 2017 repeal of net neutrality rules designed to protect consumers from telecom monopolies. So the broadband industry engaged in a practice that’s becoming more and more common: it used fake and even dead people to generate bogus support for the industry’s unpopular plan.
A new report by New York Attorney General Letitia James investigated this practice and found that the broadband industry used three marketing firms to create artificial support for the repeal: Fluent, Opt-Intelligence, and React2Media. As part of an agreement with NY’s AG, the companies were required to implement “comprehensive reforms” and pay $4.4 million in penalties. The campaign was operated by a non-profit organization funded by the broadband industry called Broadband for America, according to the report.
The NY AG office did not respond to a request for comment asking why the broadband providers that hired these firms were neither named nor penalized.
“Americans’ voices are being drowned out by masses of fake comments and messages being submitted to the government to sway decision-making,” James said in a statement. “Instead of actually looking for real responses from the American people, marketing companies are luring vulnerable individuals to their websites with freebies, co-opting their identities, and fabricating responses that giant corporations are then using to influence the policies and laws that govern our lives.”
First passed in 2015, the FCC’s net neutrality rules prevented regional broadband monopolies from abusing their gatekeeper power to harm competitors and consumers. The 2017 repeal not only eliminated those rules, it neutered much of the FCC’s consumer protection authority, while also attempting to ban state regulators from filling the consumer protection void.
All told, the investigation found that nearly 18 million of the more than 22 million comments the FCC received in its 2017 proceeding to repeal net neutrality rules were fake. About 8.5 million of those comments were sent by people who simply didn’t exist. Many, however, simply used the names of real people without their knowledge.
Many consumers were shocked to learn their names had been used in such a fashion. Even Senators Patrick Toomey and Jeff Merkley found their identities used in support of the repeal. Even this reporter's identity was also used to submit a fake comment supporting the FCC’s proposal. When I contacted the agency to ask it be removed, I was told there was nothing it could do.
The NY AG inquiry found that several of these lead-generating companies used prizes like gift cards and sweepstakes entries to lure consumers to their websites and provide their personal information. That information was then used to petition the government in support of the net neutrality repeal without those users’ consent or approval.
The creation of fake grass roots support for corporation-backed policies is frequently dubbed “astroturf,” a tactic that has become increasingly common as corporations push for policies broadly opposed by the general public.
One 2017 effort at the Labor Department to prevent conflicts of interest in retirement advice was plagued by similar bogus public comments. Fake comments also inundated the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau when it proposed a rule in 2018 trying to rein in some of the nastier habits of the payday lending industry.
Data obtained by FOIA request also showed the NFL was involved in sending fake fan comments to the FCC as early as 2014 as the league tried to fight agency efforts to eliminate the so-called "black out rule," requiring that broadcasters black out certain game broadcasts if real-world game attendance didn’t meet the league's liking.
All told, the AG’s office found that such tactics were used by corporations to influence government decision making in more than 100 different, unrelated policy campaigns.
“From net neutrality rules to laws affecting criminal justice reform, health care, and more, these fake comments have simply been generated to influence too many government policies, which is why we are cracking down on this illegal and deceptive behavior,” James said. “My office will continue to shine a spotlight on abuses and disinformation and ensure those who break the law are held accountable.”