Fake Comments Are Plaguing Government Agencies And Nobody Much Seems To Care

from the disinformation-nation dept

You might recall that when the FCC repealed net neutrality, the agency’s open comment period (the only opportunity the public had to voice their concerns) was plagued with all manner of bogus comments and identity fraud. From bots that lifted the identities of dead people to create fake enthusiasm, to the hijacking of legitimate identities (like Senators Jeff Merkley and Pat Toomey, or my own) to forge bogus support. The FCC not only refused to do anything about it, it actively blocked law enforcement efforts to do so. The agency told me there was nothing they could do when my own identity was lifted in this fashion.

A year later and a few brave journalists are still trying to find the culprit. Who benefited should be obvious. Who they paid to do the dirty work, less so.

And while the fake net neutrality comments got the lion’s share of public and media attention, the reality is this is a problem that’s been plaguing government proceedings for years. For example, new information obtained via FOIA request highlights how the NFL was involved in sending fake fan comments to the FCC as early as 2014 as the league tried to fight FCC efforts to eliminate the so-called “black out rule,” which requires that broadcasters black out certain game broadcasts if real-world attendance doesn’t meet the league’s liking. It didn’t work because the rule was so monumentally stupid, but nobody really seemed to much care about tracking down those responsible:

“The letters began ?I write as a football fan? and requested that the rule remain because, without it, premium television channels could start charging higher fees to broadcast games. The WSJ identified and interviewed fans whose names were used in the letters and were angry to be used as spokespeople for a cause they didn?t believe in.”

Sounds familiar. The same problem was recently found to have plagued a proceeding at the Labor Department, where numerous people who either don’t exist or don’t recall ever sending messages breathlessly opposed agency efforts to prevent conflicts of interest in retirement advice. The same problem plagued the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau when it proposed a rule trying to rein in some of the nastier habits of the payday lending industry. Nobody appears to have shown much interest in getting to the bottom of gamesmanship in either of those instances, either.

And last week, information obtained via FOIA request found that the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the primary bank regulator for nationally chartered banks, was inundated with bogus support for a 2015 merger between OneWest Bank and CIT Bank. A smattering of identity theft and fraud the regulatory agency was aware of and likely involved one of the companies involved, but resulted in no meaningful inquiries or punishment whatsoever:

“The documents reviewed by The Intercept show that the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the main bank regulator for nationally chartered banks, knew about the fake comments at the time, before it approved the merger. But the OCC appears to have done no meaningful investigation of the matter, and even cited public support for the merger when approving it.”

The problem’s become a bit of an epidemic, but despite the fact that this kind of behavior pollutes the public discourse and undermines the democratic process, not much (read: mostly nothing) is being done about it. Given our obsession (perhaps justly) with Russian disinformation efforts, you’d think there’d be a little more concern that the only opportunity the public is often given to provide feedback on major policy decisions or mergers, are often corrupted by widespread efforts to generate industrialized, artificial enthusiasm.

While things like astroturf and bogus support for bad policy have been a mainstay for years, these fake comments are increasingly growing in scale, as offenders now utilize hackers who’ll heavily lean on compromised databases as we saw in the net neutrality repeal. But much like we saw with the FCC, there’s little to no willpower at most government agencies to actually track down the culprits and hold those who obviously benefit from the fraudulent behavior accountable. As a result, the already marginalized will of the public has been further reduced to a faint echo, drowned out by a chorus of farmed artificiality.

Filed Under: , , , , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Fake Comments Are Plaguing Government Agencies And Nobody Much Seems To Care”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
cobol says:

Re: Re: Why Comments ?

Why do government regulatory agencies solicit public comments ??

Such regulators have no obligation to formally incorporate public comments into their decision process. Regulators are supposed to be independent and objective, free from political pressures and whims of public opinion. Regulators are already supposed to be the experts in their field — do commercial airline pilots poll their passengers to get opinions on the best way to fly the aircraft?

This whole concept of public commenting is illogical, aside from the big, demonstrated problems of getting accurate measures of public opinions.

Of course, regulators are typically politicized and seek political cover for their decisions. The commenting process is merely a token facade to pacify the general public — the actual effectiveness of that process are unimportant to the regulators.

But this entire

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Why Comments ?

Why do government regulatory agencies solicit public comments ??

Because even though the regulatory body may be composed of experts, there’s no possible way to be sure that the regulator won’t miss noticing and/or thinking of something that’s relevant enough to be taken into consideration, so it’s valuable to make sure that other experts out in the general populace can contribute information the regulator may have missed.

While the regulator may not be under any obligation to take such input into account, if they don’t solicit public comment, they won’t be able to take the input into account (because it won’t be provided).

Importantly, mere "I don’t like or want this" opinions do not constitute information worth contributing; in theory, a regulator may be not merely permitted but actually required to ignore comments of that nature.

Also importantly, once a single comment has presented a given piece of information, additional comments presenting the same information (without new insights resulting from a different viewpoint) are of no further use in making sure that the regulator is fully informed.

Chez Doff says:

Re: Fake Comments are routine on Techdirt.

Ah, "Gary"! YOU are to stage of see / blame "Blue" for all!

Whew. What a nerd rage mania for ad hom attacks you kids get when can’t adequately answer ON-TOPIC. Just out of the blue and in advance of any comment, you ATTACK — misrepresenting position — and especially to revile "common law" so a de facto royalist of some degree.

On other hand, I’m pleased that you point me up as most influential commenter here, the source of rage. I’m only an ordinary person who’d pass without notice on less rabid sites, so it’s flattering.

But you’ve fully OUTED yourself as Techdirt fanboy, Probably always were, if not actual astro-turfing.

Let’s look at your stats, "Gary", and see if that charge can be supported:

When at 154 comments, you were averaging 40 a year since 24 Aug 2015. Now at 322, you’ve more than doubled that rate to 105! — In fact, an average is highly misleading: "you" made THREE comments in 2015, FIVE in 2016, THREE up to June of 2017 for an "average" of only FIVE per year first two years! So that you’ve made over 300 in the last 15 months is ODD, just like MOST "accounts" at Techdirt!

By the way, "Gary", since the "out_of_the_blue" screen name hasn’t been used since 2014, how is it you’re so familiar with "Blue"? (As Timothy Geigner, aka "Dark Helmet" began using.)

One more point: your user name is "darkflite". Huh, similar to "Dark Helmet". Another amazing coincidence.

And I bet your OFF-TOPIC UNPROMPTED AD HOM ATTACK won’t be "hidden", more evidence that "you" are an "Insider".

Gary (profile) says:

Re: Re: Fake Trolls are routine

I use the name “Blue” because you change your name every day. So either there are 50 different trolls, or one nameless one, who the community seems to identify as “Out of the BLue.”
You attack any form of moderation – I’m pointing this out. I’m sorry if you feel this is an attack on your character but it is an attack on your behavior.
You have literally made up your own fantasy version of the US legal system and named it “Common Law” and constantly bring it up. I presume it is shorthand for some sort of alt-right code but you have never explained it (except some ramble about “For the people, see? You fools!)
Glad to know I have gotten your attention. I have been a long time reader at the site, and I’ve worked in IT for years. Your attacks on all form for content moderation are laughable because I’ve seen what unmoderated posting boards look like.
You have a high standard that you hold Mike to – but hypocritically refuse to adhere to the same standards yourself.
Saying “You live in your parents basement” is an ad hominem attack. Calling you a troll and a hypocrite is just my humble opinion based on your behavior.

Anonymous Coward says:

hold those who obviously benefit from the fraudulent behavior accountable

No. Just… no. That turns the whole thing into a giant game of poker, and it seems pretty clear that the government will be the worst player at the table. If you can’t beat them, submit a bunch of fake comments supporting their side and let the government beat them for you. Hold those who actually arranged it accountable, but if you actually believe that the people who benefit are both obvious, and will have arranged it themselves… well, that’ll continue to be true right up until it isn’t.

DannyB (profile) says:

What do you mean Nobody seems to care?

The government cares about fake comments. Fake comments are valuable to the government and are used to support certain policies.

The other beauty of fake comments is that when they don’t support a favorite policy, the comments can be pointed out as being fake — even if they’re real. Simply because of the volume of fake comments. Everybody wins. (Except for the public.)

Anonymous Coward says:

This seems to be more of an issue of exploiting the human weakness to believe lies you want to believe and just accepting things without any real supporting evidence.

If you talk to climate change deniers enough you realize they are afraid of the consequences of climate change so they accept the easy lie to escape the truth.

Religious people are always fearful of some combination nonexistence or pointlessness of life.

The way to really combat people believing in lies is to educate people in recognizing lies. To dig in and find real evidence to base beliefs on and ACCEPT it’s OK and natural to be wrong. Don’t base your personal identify on whatever random political body exists out there or anything else that isn’t strictly PERSONAL. IE, Believe in abortion (or not) but don’t believe in a political group that merely claims to support your stance.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: fake comments

That depends on what the comment is, what it’s about and what value it adds to the discussion. It’s valid if it’s a sincerely held opinion from the individual posting it but when you get a load of gaslighting and astroturfing to generate pretend support for a policy that is ultimately harmful to the public, that’s a problem. And that’s the problem with fake comments.

Okay, assume you’re generating mass comments to push a proposal that benefits the public. What you’re actually doing is pushing a line that you think benefits the public; their voices aren’t actually heard, it’s just you pretending to be them. Again, this lacks value except as an astro-turfing / gaslighting ploy.

Chez Doff says:

Re: Re: fake comments

It’s valid if it’s a sincerely held opinion from the individual posting it

Unless YOU don’t like the opinion, as you snark about "Blue" in reply to the "Gary" astro-turfing above. Sheesh.

It’s not unusual here to see screen names directly contradict themselves on one page, because goal of fanboys is only cheap ad hom shots.

Gary (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 fake Trolls!

That is possible – but calling me an astroturfer is unsupported by any facts. That makes Blue a liar.
Although I really wonder who he thinks I’m shilling for. I pretty much just snipe at the extremists that scream for absolute copyright/freedom on both sides.
If that could get me a gig as a paid spokesperson I’d like to sign up!

Same Screen Name as Before says:

Re: Re: Re:2 fake comments

Why are you still here Blue? … Oh wait, now I remember, it’s because you are a liar.

No, you were TRICKED by my clever wording, that’s all I’m guilty of. Read all this time. I didn’t promise to LEAVE Techdirt, just not darken Masnick’s site, and then I went on to delineate his is the intro / topic but that he cedes the Comments section to The Public, which is premise of my piece.

But again, over-estimated comprehension here.

In larger answer, I’m here because FUN. I watch Techdirt attenuate but it’s Masnick that is is too stubborn to go away. — He has NOTHING beyond this site to stroke his self-esteem. His accuracy on court cases since Napster is less 5%. He’s a delightful reminder of last century. Hoots never stop.

Hey, why are you NOT here much? Site lost interest for you since piracy / Masnick’s notions are obviously failing?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 fake comments

To save you trouble, besides show any possible unbiased readers, here’s the text I wrote. Read the part in BOLD:

Tell ya what, Msnick. If you’ll refute that — not just quote and contradict but show / argue basis in law — then I’ll never darken your site. — Before accepting, keep in mind the very point under debate: I hold that "your site" is the part outside the Comments area! You exercise editorial control to initiate topics and write as wish, BUT must NOT control comments from ME or anyone in the part where you cede control to The Public by providing code for an HTML input form, visibly reserve no rights, and especially with your continual trumpeting belief in "free speech".

Now, you FELL FOR MY TRICK EVEN THOUGH I STATED CONDITIONS CLEARLY AND IMMEDIATELY. — I’m being generous in calling it a "trick": just played you cloowns because I KNOW how you’ll react. You didn’t make it past the dash, is the cuase. You were SO excited at prospect, as I predicted, that just stopped comprehending.

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 fake comments

No Blue, you actually tricked yourself.

Your first sentence contains the terms of the agreement:

Tell ya what, Msnick. If you’ll refute that — not just quote and contradict but show / argue basis in law — then I’ll never darken your site.

Mike did EXACTLY what your terms required – he refuted your "Summary to here" completely.

Nothing in your second sentence (which you highlighted for some reason) changed the terms of your challenge, it is just some incorrect notion you asserted.

If you ask my opinion, every comment you make darkens this site.

So, in the immortal words of Gene Wilder – "You lose. You get nothing. Good day, sir!"

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: fake comments

Unless YOU don’t like the opinion, as you snark about "Blue" in reply to the "Gary" astro-turfing above. Sheesh.

There are plenty of valid opinions that I’ve disagreed with without being called out for trolling, etc. That’s because I don’t lash out at people I disagree with, even when I feel strongly about my own dissenting opinion. I state my case, give my reasons why, and leave it at that until I’m either contradicted again or the other party leaves it. When I’m wrong, as I occasionally am, I admit it.

It’s not unusual here to see screen names directly contradict themselves on one page, because goal of fanboys is only cheap ad hom shots.

You’re projecting so much you should work at a cinema.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Having a badly flawed system allows them to claim massive support or massive backlash.
Many citizens are in the bubble of the Government wouldn’t lie to them and they take what we say & want seriously… they are also very high.

It’s cheaper than “donations” to buy support for programs that harm citizens & can be engaged against legislators. The media can report on all of faked comments & there is already a cheerleading section ready to claim it is fake news just because the news said it.

The entire system is regularly gamed to the detriment of citizens & there is no will to fix it, b/c they exist only to get reelected not help us.

It’s been shown that astroturfing works be it fake groups or companies buying the letterhead of a minority group to send in fake support messages.

Everyone is getting paid, we’re getting screwed.
Perhaps we need to be honest that our government has been bought & paid for, that we’ve let them change the rules so only they win at the end of the day.

Corporations aren’t people, Dark money is not good, and we deserve to know why we keep getting the shaft.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

You are off target.

Nations get the governments they deserve as a collective responsibility and concept and totally true.

Saying that no voting is the same is specious and malicious. What if your only choice was poison or fire? Do you deserve either because you elected neither?

While some people may have individual responsibility, they do not have THAT form of culpability. The deserving is a “collective” scope NOT and individual scope!

Hench the “Every nation gets the government it deserves” and NOT “Every citizen gets the government they deserve”!

Anonymous Coward says:

They treat the comments exactly like they treat their constituents – they do not care.

They care only for themselves – obviously. Some still attempt the old whitewash PR facade but lately they have given up on that even – just out in the open blatant corruption, crime and villainy.

We will see if this illegitimate government can be saved, hopefully people vote and their votes count.

Anonymous Coward says:

“But much like we saw with the FCC, there’s little to no willpower at most government agencies to actually track down the culprits and hold those who obviously benefit from the fraudulent behavior accountable. As a result, the already marginalized will of the public has been further reduced to a faint echo, drowned out by a chorus of farmed artificiality.”

Well hell Mel, why on earth would government or business complain about or seek punishment for anything that “always” pushes and supports the exact agenda that government and business desires.

Now, were these fakes designed to oppose a government or business agenda, then you’d see some serious investigation followed by some very serious punishment for the culprits once caught – and caught they would be.

Its almost as if government and business were the actual culprits behind the process, or at least, the employers and directors of those running the scam…. but of course, that would never happen, right, cuz, as we all know, governments and businesses are simply too honest to use such underhanded techniques to “marginalize the will of the public.”

That would be un-American. 🙂

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...