Some mysterious bots seem to have taken a keen interest in telecommunications policy.
Automated programs are thought to be responsible for more than 100,000 identical comments recently posted to the Federal Communications Commission’s website.
The messages, each posted under a different name, urge the agency to roll back the Obama Administration’s rules protecting net neutrality.
Yet when ZDNet and The Verge contacted more than two dozen of the supposed concerned citizens, none of them were aware of the opinions expressed in their name. One didn’t even know what net neutrality was.
Instead, the comments are suspected to have come from a so-called “astroturfing” operation conducted on behalf of a party that stands to benefit from loosened regulations on telecoms.
The source of the names and addresses used is unknown, though it’s possible they came from public voting records. The comments are notably listed in alphabetical order by name.
It wouldn’t be the first time telecom lobbyists have been accused of resorting to such tactics. Vice News reported in 2014 that a telecom industry trade group tapped DCI Group, a political lobbying firm notorious for creating fake citizen campaigns, to gin up opposition to net neutrality proposals.
The DCI Group didn’t immediately return a request for comment.
It’s not clear who’s behind the operation this time around. Gizmodo reports that the conservative group that originated the text of the comments — the Center for Individual Freedom — has been soliciting people’s information through a digital ad input form. The data is then used to post comments under their names.
However, the group denied that it ever uses someone’s personal details without their permission, and at least one supposed commenter told Gizmodo she’d never seen the ad in question.
The FCC’s website has become a battleground for the future of the internet since Donald Trump’s newly installed FCC chair, Ajit Pai, announced plans to repeal the previous administration’s net neutrality protections.
The rollback would allow internet service providers (ISPs) like Verizon and Comcast to favor content from certain companies or websites with faster internet speeds, an outcome that opponents say would hurt consumers and smother open competition between businesses.
Earlier this week, John Oliver called on Last Week Tonight viewers to flood the agency with comments in favor of net neutrality regulation. Tens of thousands of them obliged.
The regulator saw so much public interest in fact that it claimed to be victim to a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, a scheme in which hackers overwhelm a target site with fake traffic.
Internet activists and cybersecurity experts were skeptical of the claim, noting that a site failure due to a sudden flood of real traffic — the sort a site might see if, say, a popular TV host were to direct thousands of fans to bombard it — could be hard to distinguish from a DDoS attack. The agency has so far declined to offer proof when pressed.
Meanwhile, conservative media outlets accused Oliver’s fans of using fake accounts and bots to spread their own platform. The Washington Free Beacon pointed out that in some instances, the pro-net neutrality comments also sometimes used the same names or identical text repeatedly.
But most of the 30,000 duplicates can be traced to a form complaint generator launched by internet activism groups Fight for the Future and Demand Progress.
Even so, the allegedly suspect comments favoring net neutrality are far outnumbered by those in opposition.
The involvement of bots is hard to definitively prove; oftentimes, grass-roots political efforts will distribute form letters to foster a unified message. Lobbyists also use ad campaigns like the one reported above to legally, if deceptively, amplify their public support.
In any case, though, the massive number of opposing comments definitely seem to fit the pattern of a bot-driven effort.