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Fake Comments Have Real Consequences

— December 18, 2017

As we live more of our lives on the Internet, it’s that much easier for thieves to use our data not just to steal, but to fray the fabric of democracy.

The internet isn’t just a place where we post SpongeBob memes and talk about the new Star Wars movie. It’s also a battleground. As more and more of our daily lives take place online, websites and internet traffic have become key targets, irresistible to people who want our data and are willing to do anything to get it. And what they do with our information causes real harm, not just to our pocketbooks and sense of wellbeing, but also to the social fabric of our democracy. Consider, for example, the millions of fake comments submitted to the FCC in the lead up to the recent net neutrality decision.

For opinionated yet busy people, online protests are mighty convenient. You’ve probably seen those sites that allow you to copy a form letter, change or add some words if you like, and email it to your Congresscritters in a moment or two of armchair activism. On the other end, government agencies like the FCC typically allow some degree of public commentary before making policy decisions that affect all of us. Prior to reversing the Obama era policy on net neutrality, the FCC received a flood of messages, purportedly from the public, urging a decision one way or the other on the subject.

Several investigations into those messages found odd results. Many of them have identical language or other patterns that indicate that they’re fake comments, posted by spammers or bots. One researcher found that out of the 22+ million public comments submitted to the FCC, fewer than 880,000 of them were unique.

Credit card theft; image by Don Hankins, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0, no changes made.
Credit card theft; image by Don Hankins, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0, no changes made.

Millions of identities used to file fake comments with FCC.

The biggest single category of similarly worded posts were in favor of net neutrality, and appeared to be variations on a form letter. This is the sort of thing you’d expect from busy activists who modify a precanned message before sending it out into the ether.

The messages supporting the repeal of net neutrality had more disturbing qualities. They were more likely to be identically worded and were submitted in much larger chunks. Many of these weren’t submitted under a real-looking name, either. There were 17,000 fake comments signed by “The Internet” and another several thousand signed by “Net Neutrality.”

Randomized samples of the roughly 880,000 more unique submissions that were likely to have been posted by genuine human beings, one at a time, showed that 99.7% of the respondents were strongly in favor of maintaining net neutrality, speaking from the heart about the impact that a repeal would have on their lives and livelihoods.

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman (D) shared comments from people whose identities were used to post some of the fake comments. Many were understandably appalled at their names being used to promote an agenda they oppose. Reports of elderly or deceased parents and minor children whose stolen names were attached to fake comments abounded. The Wall Street Journal contacted 2,757 people whose email addresses were listed in the comments and found that 72% of the of those people hadn’t made them.

The Office of the Attorney General of Pennsylvania, Josh Shapiro (D), posted a web page where you can see if your name has been used in any of the potentially fake comments.  But what happens next time?

Related: New York AG Schneiderman Sues FCC Over Net Neutrality Repeal


Many comments on regulations are fake, WSJ investigation finds
As FCC Prepares Net-Neutrality Vote, Study Finds Millions of Fake Comments
More than a Million Pro-Repeal Net Neutrality Comments were Likely Faked
A.G. Schneiderman Releases New Details On Investigation Into Fake Net Neutrality Comments
“Suspicious” event routes traffic for big-name sites through Russia
USA TODAY’s list of the biggest data breaches and hacks of all time (Hint: Uber’s only #12)
Fake FCC Comments

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