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You might recall that when the FCC repealed net neutrality, the agency's open comment period (the only opportunity the public had to voice their concerns) was plagued with all manner of bogus comments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: comments, comptroller, department of labor, fake comments, fcc, federal government, occ, public input


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  1. identicon
    Wendy Cockcroft, 5 Oct 2018 @ 7:23am

    Re: Fake or Free Speech?

    Unless he disagrees with them, of course.

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