Contrary To Media Claims, There's No Evidence Russia Was Behind Fake Net Neutrality Comments

from the a-game-of-telephone dept

Earlier this week we noted how the Ajit Pai FCC again shot down journalist FOIA attempts to find out who was behind the millions of bogus comments that plagued the agency’s net neutrality repeal. The move prompted one of the agency’s commissioners, Jessica Rosenworcel, to accuse her own agency of a coverup–since Pai refuses to work with either journalists or law enforcement investigations trying to uncover the truth of who was behind the comment fraud.

In an uncharacteristically snarky statement (pdf) issued the same day, Pai attempted to dismiss the criticisms as purely partisan attacks. But he also acknowledged something we already knew…that 500,000 or so of the email addresses used in the FCC’s comment form came from users purportedly on Russian ISPs. From his statement:

“…one finds the now-standard overheated rhetoric about ?net neutrality? (omitting, as usual, the fact that the half-million comments submitted from Russian e-mail addresses and the nearly eight million comments filed by e-mail addresses from e-mail domains associated with supported her position on the issue!).”

So this is nothing new. Media reports had noted previously how 444,938 of the millions of bogus comments happened to have Russian email addresses. The New York Times’ FOIA-focused lawsuit against the FCC also specifically highlights these addresses (many of which actually supported retaining net neutrality), likely in the hopes this would lend a little extra gravitas to court consideration.

Yet in the modern news media cycle, which can often resemble a game of telephone, numerous media outlets somehow rushed to the conclusion that Pai had “confirmed” that Russia must have been behind the efforts to stuff the ballot box at the FCC. Just a smattering of examples from this week:

That’s fairly remarkable, given that’s not what Pai said, nor is there any proof that “Russia” itself interfered with the net neutrality public comment period.

While many of these stories were more nuanced than the headlines (which writers often don’t get to pick), the reality is the headlines are all a pretty large majority of people read. The Daily Dot report in particular was a huge hit on Reddit, upvoted more than 66,000 times and circulated far and wide. Not too surprisingly, the media’s collective headline errors quickly drove many on Twitter to accuse Pai of being a Russian agent himself in dire need of prosecution:

Even Tim Wu, the Columbia law professor who coined the term net neutrality, circulated one of the headlines claiming Russia itself had been “linked” to the comment fraud:

Here’s the problem: while these 500,000 email addresses used in the FCC’s form appear to be Russian, that may not mean all that much.

Whoever stuffed the FCC comment section with farmed support (and in some cases opposition) for the repeal used all kinds of tricks to generate the bogus identities, including a bot that pulled names alphabetically from a hacked database of some kind. Many of the names used were dead people. Anybody could have plugged Russian email addresses into some of these form-generated responses, without actually representing the Russian government or even Russian people, thanks largely to an FCC website that didn’t even remotely try to ferret out spam or bullshit.

Putin’s adoration of hacking and disinformation is a legitimate problem, even if many may disagree on the breadth of the impact the Russian leader’s digital dick waving has had on the real world and elections. And while it’s certainly possible that Russia’s attempts to pour gasoline on our already napalm-esque levels of dysfunction extended to the net neutrality fight, there’s simply no evidence actually supporting that claim right now. Nor did Pai state that there was.

In similar cases, the evidence that inevitably appears usually points to a more obvious culprit: industry. These kinds of fake comments have been plaguing multiple US government agencies and proceedings in the states over the last few years, from proceedings at the Labor Department trying to rein in financial fraud, to efforts at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau aimed at thwarting payday loan fraud.

More often than not it’s the companies that benefit from the shenanigans that are found to be behind gamesmanship like this, since more than a few DC policy shops now offer this kind of greasy bullshit as an added value service for clients hoping to shape or influence public perception and government policy. The goal is usually to not just to create bogus support for bad policy, but to help undermine trust in the public comment process–often the only chance many Americans have to voice their thoughts on these decisions. Using Russian email addresses in bulk certainly would go a long way toward achieving that goal.

In the case of net neutrality, whoever was behind the fake comments was obviously keen on trying to downplay and discredit the millions of bipartisan Americans pissed off by the FCC’s blatant handout to giant ISPs like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Charter (Spectrum). Numerous investigations (at the GAO and NY AG, for example) and next February’s net neutrality court battle are likely to, sooner or later, shed light on who carried out this operation, who funded it, and why Pai’s FCC is trying so hard to keep most of these investigations from getting to the truth.

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Comments on “Contrary To Media Claims, There's No Evidence Russia Was Behind Fake Net Neutrality Comments”

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Derry Vation says:

No Russians behind "Trump-Russia", either: NYT, WaPo, Clinton.

Gee, I thought that you were veering dangerously close to admitting that there is "fake news", but is only so that you can kind of claim you’re above that.

Then we get to YOUR mania in this pejorative packed attack sentence:

In the case of net neutrality, whoever was behind the fake comments was obviously keen on trying to downplay and discredit the millions of bipartisan Americans pissed off by the FCC’s blatant handout to giant ISPs like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Charter (Spectrum).

Before I believe that you don’t fall for and push "fake news", Techdirt, you’ll have to explicitly state that NYT, WaPo, and Deep State didn’t connive to push a paid-for by DNC / Clinton political attack in the "Steele dossier".

Until then, you’re just trying to build credibility with limited hangout, pointing at others as "the real fakers".

Anonymous Coward says:

You are correct it is a problem with ‘headline error’ and people only reading headlines. For example, the actual TheHill article states only this:

“Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai is acknowledging that Russia-linked email addresses weighed in during the public comment process ahead of the FCC’s net neutrality repeal last year.

Pai said in a statement this week that it is a “fact” that a half-million comments were submitted from Russian email addresses during the public comment period, adding that most of those comments were in favor of net neutrality.”

Unfortunately those who write the articles don’t get to also title them…

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: If that's what the cover looks like...

Unfortunately those who write the articles don’t get to also title them…

With joke titles like that the writers should really insist on being able to title their own articles, because as it is with blatant click-bait titles like that I’d have no reason to even bothering to read anything more, and would instead assume it was just more of the same. And if that sort of garbage title is the norm for the site, well, why bother reading any of it?

Anonymous Coward says:

Seems to me that it should be relatively easy to figure out who was behind these, even without FCC co-operation: just see which reputation company in DC is changing board members and mission statement in the run-up to the court case next year.

Now finding out who hired them… that’ll be trickier as the shuffle will be intended to obscure that kind of relationship.

Alexis says:

Complicated problems can have simple solutions:

One just has to ask oneself the most basic question to solve this mess. Who profits the most from the repeal of net neutrality rules? There is no need to get sidetracked by Russia to figure out Pai is an industry lobbyist turned FCC head. The industry is the culprit as always has been. If Russia really was behind it Pai would not be blocking investigations. It would actually provide a very convenient scapegoat for him to pin the blame for everything.

MortimerPlumstrangler says:

"whoever" was behind the fake comments

I’d like to introduce everyone to Shane Cory; who lists on twitter the position of Former Executive Director at Project Veritas. He runs a shop called MediaBridge; a conservative messaging firm whose website boasts of helping to place hundreds of thousands of comments on net neutrality during Mr. Obama’s presidency on behalf of one client. MediaBridge’s one client?

"American Commitment submitted nearly 800,000 comments to the Federal Communications Commission opposing the regulation of the Internet.

These comments accounted for 56.5% of all comments submitted.

Media Bridge Managing Partner Shane Cory, developed a marketing plan and position for American Commitment’s campaign that gave them the scalability to win the issue . . . no matter how big the opposition."


PS: Check out Shane’s blog post on linked-in from 2015 titled: How to take on the Government and Win –

Familiar, right?

Shane Cory says:

Re: "whoever" was behind the fake comments

Yep. And those quotes refer to the 2014 campaign — you could look at the dates. Regardless, I was the first to do massive large scale advocacy campaigns in an efficient manner. That was many years ago. Since then others saw the benefit of it. Unfortunately, rather than do it correctly (which is expensive), some chose to take shortcuts or others chose to disrupt the entire process. It’s still happening today. The government could slow this down in a number of ways, but instead they chose to allow —- and sometimes REQUIRE anonymous comments.

The investigations into the 2017 Net Neut campaign have likely stopped the submission of stolen or fake names, but for now they just submit comments with no names — with no penalty or accountability.

The process needs to change.

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