After removing all duplicate and fake comments filed with the Federal Communications Commission last year, a Stanford researcher has found that 99.7 percent of public comments—about 800,000 in all—were pro-net neutrality.
“With the fog of fraud and spam lifted from the comment corpus, lawmakers and their staff, journalists, interested citizens and policymakers can use these reports to better understand what Americans actually said about the repeal of net neutrality protections and why 800,000 Americans went further than just signing a petition for a redress of grievances by actually putting their concerns in their own words,” Ryan Singel, a media and strategy fellow at Stanford University, wrote in a blog post Monday.
Singel released a report Monday that analyzed the unique comments—as in, they weren’t a copypasta of one or dozens of other letters—filed last year ahead of the FCC’s decision to repeal federal net neutrality protections. That’s from the 22 million total comments filed, meaning that more than 21 million comments were fake, bots, or organized campaigns.
“This is not to say that all non-unique comments filed to the FCC via online campaigns are fake,” the report says, since many commenters used form letters to share their support for net neutrality. “However, due to the large amount of noise created by fake comments, it remains very difficult to locate the real signals in the non-unique comments.”
Before voting to repeal federal net neutrality protections last year, the FCC opened up an online form to collect comments from the public. If you recall, it was a shitshow, with millions of fake comments sent in by bots under phony names, stolen identities, and even names of dead people. It led to multiple lawsuits filed, including one by 23 state attorney general. Despite acknowledging the failures, the FCC refused to investigate or really reconsider the comments at all, though a judge recently ruled that the agency must release records related to the phony comments to the public.
With the help of his colleague Jeff Kao, Singel used machine learning models to identify more than 800,000 unique comments and analyze them, showing that commenters were firmly against repealing the rules, and these commenters spanned the country geographically and politically.
Singel found that “while there were more comments on average from House districts represented by Democrats, a substantial number of unique comments were filed in Republican districts,” the report reads. The average number of comments filed in each district was 1,489, with Republican districts having an average of 1,202.
He also found that unique commenters had a more nuanced understanding of net neutrality law than lawmakers may have assumed, including regularly mentioning the decision to reclassify broadband as a common carrier under Title II of the Communications Act of 1996.
The report also suggests that net neutrality could play a role in the upcoming midterm elections, with many of the so-called “toss up” states having significant representation from pro-net neutrality commenters. For example, California's 45th District is currently held by Republican Representative Mimi Walters, and a tight battle is expected there. In that district, the report found more than 2,300 unique comments filed, the majority of which were opposed to repealing net neutrality.
If this report is any indication, candidates in tight races might want to reexamine their stance on net neutrality.