“A BuzzFeed News investigation — based on an analysis of millions of comments, along with court records, business filings, and interviews with dozens of people — offers a window into how a crucial democratic process was skewed by one of the most prolific uses of political impersonation in US history.”
The Verge and Benton highlight BuzzFeed’s investigation into the flood of fake comments submitted to the FCC regarding net neutrality this week. The issue is not just net neutrality.
This week on The Vergecast, Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel talks with Jeremy Singer-Vine, the data editor for the BuzzFeed News investigative unit, about his story that was published recently regarding the fake comments on the Federal Communications Commission’s online net neutrality debate.
If you haven’t read the piece, you should. The investigation details where all of the fake comments in the FCC’s net neutrality process came from, including dead people leaving comments and shady political operatives involved in the scam.
It’s not really a story about net neutrality. Instead, it’s about how systems designed for public participation in the government are so easily scammed and what the challenges are for preventing such scams from happening.
Jeremy Singer-Vine: Right. So when the FCC opened up commenting on its net neutrality proposal to repeal the Obama-era net neutrality provisions, there were ultimately, over the course of many months, 22 million comments. And there was a lot of great reporting, including by The Verge and other outlets, showing there’s something very funky about a lot of these comments. Some were clearly fake, as in they didn’t come from anyone. Some seemed to be clearly impersonating other people. People said that there were comments under their names that they definitely didn’t leave.
And then general knowledge that there were millions of problematic comments had been known for a while, and we tried to get to the bottom of as much of it as we could, and we ended up focusing on one particular group of nearly 2 million comments that, through our reporting, we discovered were clearly instances of impersonation and had been ultimately funded by the broadband industry.
So when we saw in the net neutrality pursuing their 22 million comments, a huge proportion — nearly half — were submitted through the FCC’s bulk uploading system, and these were comments that were gathered on behalf of organizations, some pro-net neutrality, some anti. The idea is the FCC system, it crashed, as you noted, is not the most user-friendly system, so you can go out and you can collect comments on behalf of an opinion or an organization, what have you, and then submit them all at once to the FCC. Through [the Freedom of Information Act], we were able to get records of who had done those bulk submissions. And very quickly when we were looking through that data, this particular group of 2 million comments jumped out to us because they had a huge overlap with a data breach known as the Modern Business Solutions Data Breach that happened a little bit earlier than that.”
Those comments had been submitted by a political consultancy known as Media Bridge, and they do a range of things, including very vocally, they’ve written on their website, flooding agencies with comments on a topic that the client asks for, essentially.
What happened in the comments section of the FCC’s net neutrality hearing?
November 5, 2019
A Q&A with BuzzFeed data editor Jeremy Singer-Vine, who published a story recently regarding the fake comments on the Federal Communications Commission’s online net neutrality debate.
Interviewer Nilay Patel: “What got me was [FCC Chairman Ajit] Pai said over and over again, ‘It is not the quantity of comments that we get; it’s the quality of them,’ which, to me, felt like telecom companies like Verizon have lawyers who are writing these comments. Those are higher-quality.”
Singer-Vine: “Pai’s comments and the general framing of quality over quantity is interesting because that is sort of the rule of law, that federal agencies are supposed to accept all the comments they can on any new, proposed rule….. But political operators know that even if the public version of how these things work is quality over quantity, people are paying attention to the quantity. So there are political consultancies that have cropped up over the years that help organizations, regardless of political persuasion, but help people amass comments for public comment periods.”
Patel: “So the FCC doesn’t have to make sure that these are real people at all?”
Singer-Vine: “No, and in fact, when people have gone to the FCC, people who say they’ve been impersonated, the FCC not only says ‘It wasn’t our obligation to prevent that, but we’re not going to take it down.’ Their policy is, ‘This is part of the permanent public record. If you disagree with something that’s been submitted in your name, you’re welcome to submit a follow-up comment that corrects the record or what have you.’ But the FCC not only does not verify, but it does not try to verify. There’s no step in the process that would flag, for example, a large submission that seemed to impersonate a lot of people. There’s nothing in their process that would detect that.”
BuzzFeed’s investigation is here:
A fierce battle over the regulation of the internet was riddled with millions of fake comments in the most prolific known instance of political impersonation in US history.
After finding the eyebrow-raising patterns in the 2017 net neutrality comments, BuzzFeed News searched for other batches of suspicious-looking FCC comments.
Again, Media Bridge popped up.
When the FCC was considering a new rule that would allow cable consumers to use their own set-top boxes — regulation that the cable industry opposed — about 100,000 comments were posted, over the course of a few days, using language from American Commitment. Among them was another comment attributed posthumously to Annie Reeves.
One year later, 99.9% of those exact same names and addresses appeared on the FCC’s website, weighing in on an entirely different policy debate — net neutrality. They were uploaded by Media Bridge.
Investigative reporters used tools that the federal agency itself could have used to guarantee the integrity of the comment process. For example, BuzzFeed reported:
“Nearly 8 million identical one-sentence comments supporting the existing regulations were tied to email addresses from FakeMailGenerator.com. Many of those used plausible names but with nonsensical street-and-city combinations that do not exist. Another million comments, also supporting net neutrality, claimed to come from people with @pornhub.com email addresses.”
“…Data scientist Jeff Kao published a remarkable finding. Using a technique known as “clustering,” Kao had found that 1.3 million comments were just iterations of the same template, generated by a computer but with certain words altered to make them seem like individual expressions of opinion. “President Obama’s order to take over Internet access is a exploitation of the open Internet” was a common, ungrammatical phrase. Kao, who now works at ProPublica, also estimated that 99.7% of the “organic” comments — those that didn’t appear to be duplicates or prewritten — favored maintaining the Obama policy of net neutrality.”
“BuzzFeed News requested and received details of the comments that had been bulk-uploaded through the FCC’s new system, which were first pried loose by freelance journalist Jason Prechtel.”
“BuzzFeed News ran large samples of the email addresses in those files through Have I Been Pwned, a website that identifies whether an address has been exposed in any of hundreds of major data breaches. The results were stark: In one particular group of 1.9 million comments, according to BuzzFeed News’ analysis, 94% of the email addresses belonged to people who had fallen victim to a hack known as the Modern Business Solutions data breach, in which millions of people’s personal information, including full names, birthdates, home addresses, and email addresses, had been stolen. In 2016, a hacker had tweeted links to the breached data, which security researchers eventually traced back to an Austin-based data management company whose servers had been unguarded.”
Delude or Collude? Is the Problem the Fox or the Hen House?
On October 24, Jeremy Singer-Vine reported that, “The ranking member of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations called findings by BuzzFeed News, published earlier this month, ‘extremely troubling.'”
“Ashley Boizelle, deputy general counsel for the FCC, told senators that the agency focuses on the “substance” of comments it receives — not the identities of the writers or the number of posts — and that the agency has “launched a fulsome review to overhaul” its commenting system.” 
The groups involved in posting fraudulent comments on behalf of the industry present one issue; the FCC failing to provide any discernment regarding this example of “ballot stuffing” for policy decisions is another.
But even more troubling is the fact that a former Verizon lawyer is implying that there is some sort of discernment taking place at the FCC regarding the “quality” of comments, submissions, and testimony.
Does the FCC sort comments into the category that supports the industry agenda, and the category that does not, resulting in its personification as a captured agency?
Nowhere is this issue more alarming than in the roll-out of 5G infrastructure arriving on thoroughfares and public ways, in close proximity to basically everything, despite harm already being reported to both human health and the environment from the earlier deployments.
The FCC has systemically ignored testimony about the need to update exposure limits.
As reported by Joel Moskowitz,
In all, the FCC received more than 1,200 submissions between June 25, 2012 and October 1, 2019. Many submissions include multiple documents. The preponderance of submissions call on the FCC to adopt stronger exposure limits on radiofrequency radiation.
Hundreds of individuals submitted statements that document their personal health problems and diseases experienced from exposure to radiofrequency radiation. These and other submissions can be viewed or downloaded by clicking on Proceeding Number 13-84 on the FCC web site.
The FCC’s obsolete RF exposure limits are 23 years old. The current request for public input is six years old. The FCC never reported on or acted upon a similar request for public input issued in 2003.
Whether scammers delude the FCC, or collude with the FCC, that is the Million Dollar Question.
The corruption of health inquiry is not limited to the FCC.
Regarding the smart meter health debacle, Ed Friedman, Spokesperson: Maine Coalition to Stop Smart Meters noted that,
While not surprising the Pubic Utilities Commission staff continues to thumb their nose at protective Maine state law (ensuring safety), showing instead their utility bias, it’s particularly egregious they rejected something like 800 peer-reviewed scientific references submitted as evidence of RF bio-effects all the while casually accepting at face value, contrary testimony from CMP’s product defense consulting firm Exponent, a firm that would be hired to assure citizens it’s perfectly safe to leave young women with Jack the Ripper.
Where is the health and safety research for 5G? The corruption of RF health science is well documented. 
Like questions looming about broadband mapping accuracy,  the overarching issue at the FCC is actually about not data accuracy. It’s about ethics, and about a nation that is lying to itself about RF safety, security, and the need for speed.
To paraphrase our old missing crime-fighting friend The Shadow,
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of industry? The FCC knows.”