The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Millions of fake commenters asked the FCC to end net neutrality. ‘Astroturfing’ is a business model.

The technology used this time may be new, but the practice has been around for decades

New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) at a news conference on Aug. 6. (Kathy Willens/AP)

Last week, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced the findings of a major multiyear investigation into public comments posted fraudulently in the name of many residents of New York and other states.

In 2017, the Federal Communications Commission was considering a proposal to repeal the existing net neutrality rules that require Internet service providers (ISPs), such as big broadband companies, to treat all Internet content equitably, preventing them from creating “fast lanes” for high-paying content providers and “slow lanes” for everyone else. Any change to the rules require a period of public comment.

The problem, as the New York investigation and others indicated, was that public relations and marketing firms working for the ISPs fabricated millions of comments favoring changing the rules. James required these go-between companies to pay $4.4 million in penalties and to reform their practices to ensure this will never happen again.

As my and others’ research shows, industries can hire specialized political operatives to mobilize — whether openly or covertly — the public to lobby for a business’s goals. The businesses that James went after are following a long-standing model.

ISPs hired firms that created a fake public

The ISPs wanted the FCC to abolish net neutrality. Unfortunately for them, a lot of Americans favor net neutrality, and were likely to let the FCC know. So ISPs wanted their own public, which could create “cover” for the FCC’s decision.

The ISPs hired “lead generation” firms, like Fluent, Opt-Intelligence and React2Media, to recruit unwitting participants — through sweepstakes entries and gift card lotteries — into providing their names and contact information. These personal details were later attached without permission to pro-repeal boilerplate letters, which were then sent to the FCC. They fraudulently generated more than 8 million letters.

While this effort was bigger in scale than others in the past, it was not different in kind. A 2014 ProPublica investigation, for example, revealed that Intuit (maker of the TurboTax software) submitted fraudulent letters purporting to come from local civil rights activists, rabbis and other community leaders, opposing an Internal Revenue Service pilot program aimed at making it easier to file taxes. Earlier, in 2009, a pro-coal group hired a public affairs firm that submitted a variety of forged letters opposing new climate legislation, claiming to represent local NAACP leaders, women’s groups, veterans and other diverse constituents. History abounds with earlier cases.

Such practices are so established that there is an entire industry of firms that provide these services, many of whichhave been doing this kind of work for over a generation. According to Gizmodo, Congressional Quarterly Roll Call — a long-standing Washington publishing company with a separate arm that supports business lobbying — may have provided the advocacy software used to help generate many of the swarms of pro-repeal comments.

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New technologies are allowing ‘astroturfing’

Such industry campaigns typically look to build what I have called a “broad coalition”; they try to mobilize a diverse representation of the public, particularly focusing on those who wouldn’t appear to have self-interested reasons for involvement. Often they hope to demonstrate the political engagement of organizations representing underrepresented racial and ethnic communities, which helps industry groups gain political advantage. Such measures have been particularly pronounced in efforts to oppose net neutrality.

Observers pejoratively call it “astroturfing” when a company or organization uses various artificial techniques to build the appearance of authentic grass-roots citizen support. Those techniques include fraud; recruiting participants to masquerade as seemingly unprompted supporters of industry; and even directly paying activists.

New technologies are making it easier to manufacture support. As the New York investigation shows, fake comments can be recruited and submitted at scale using the Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that government agencies provide so that organizations can easily gather and submit large numbers of comments.

This explains how social media can both weaken — and strengthen — democracy.

In principle, the ability to use computational methods to analyze such comments en masse makes it easier to detect fraud. The problem, however, is that even when it’s clear that such fraud is taking place, people in power may be willing to look the other way, if it helps their side. The FCC approved the net neutrality repeal on a party-line vote in December 2017 even after it was already becoming clear that widespread fraud had taken place. (In response, seven states including California passed their own net neutrality laws; another five states are considering such laws this year).

Does this mean governments might wish to rethink this kind of democratic communication? Identity verification systems, for instance, could help prevent fraud, although they would not undo the age-old tradition of individuals submitting prompted political form letters. Others have suggested that agencies reconsider whether interest groups be allowed to use API systems to mass submit comments; in 2017, this would have affected not just opponents but also supporters of net neutrality, which used those interfaces. Finally, some have suggested, echoing a long-standing concern, that the federal government require companies and interest groups to disclose expenditures on “grass-roots lobbying.”

While James’s report and the accompanying financial penalties might temporarily deter this approach, they’re unlikely to stop future astroturf campaigns on their own.

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Edward Walker (@edwardwalker) is professor of sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles, and is author of “Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants In American Democracy” (Cambridge University Press, 2014).