Photo by Elnur
It’s depressing how often one reads news that makes the United States seem as though we’re reliving the 19th century rather than an enlightened 21st. With that comment, you might think I’m referring to the current administration (and I certainly could be), but at the moment, I refer to Americans across the political spectrum who seem willing to return to the political tactics of Tammany Hall, albeit in digital form.
On May 31, the National Legal and Policy Center, a D.C. watchdog group, reported that an “initial forensic analysis” of the 2.5 million comments submitted to the FCC on Net Neutrality found that over 465,000 of these were fake. It further states that over 100,000 of these comments used language from the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s “Dear FCC” petitioning tool in support of “Net Neutrality.” Although the NLPC did not accuse the EFF of processing these false emails, the organization was quick to defend itself as though it had been so accused. It’s June 1 response states …
“NLPC’s report is false. Not one name, email address, or email domain cited in the report matches to any of the comments that came through EFF’s comment tool.”
Then, missing the point and seizing the moment, the statement proposes …
“Throughout the FCC’s comment process, we’ve seen malicious actors attempt to discredit the process by generating obviously fake comments. Their hope is that they can drown out the voices of the overwhelming majority of Americans who support net neutrality.”
I am in no way qualified to assert that the EFF had any direct hand in the fake emails, but somebody spammed the FCC; and I have no problem saying that the EFF’s rebuttal is preposterous. If there is a manipulator trying to sway public opinion “away from Net Neutrality,” it would be easier and more effective to SPAM the FCC with comments in support of that agenda than it would be to plant false data with the hope that its discovery will make the EFF look bad as a tangential way to tip the scale on the neutrality debate. That’s a convoluted process expecting a lot of the public that, frankly, has bigger fish to fry these days.
It is far more likely that the false emails in this case have been generated by a manipulator who is on the same side as the EFF on the neutrality issue, and the EFF’s failure to denounce the practice is both telling and typical of our times. In short, it seems that people across the political spectrum have forgotten that American democracy demands that the means are more important than the ends—a discipline that requires vigilance and which may be in regression thanks largely to social media.
Even people who are thoughtful about big issues will naturally respond to memes and headlines with short claims like “X million Americans support Net Neutrality.” We accept these statements as fact and help to spread them, lending them the credibility of our endorsement. That’s politics via Facebook and Twitter, and whichever side can claim the larger number stands a decent chance of winning the debate regardless of merit. During the SOPA/PIPA dustup, the EFF and similar organizations crowed loud and long about the apparent overwhelming groundswell of support to defeat those bills. But nobody stopped to wonder how many ineligible voices—kids, trolls, foreign citizens, bots—were represented in those numbers.
Now that there is a full-scale congressional investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. election and we’re doing a lot of soul-searching into the nature of populism, people are beginning to at least consider the insidious role data manipulation can play via this internet thing that groups like the EFF like to call “the greatest tool for democracy ever invented.” In this regard, I encourage readers to follow the ongoing investigation by British journalist Carole Cadwaldr into the role of data manipulation in national elections.
The EFF defends the internet writ large as the essential tool for speech and democratic principles, declares that FCC Chairman Pai’s agenda threatens all of that, but then downplays the significance that at least 20% of the emails associated with this very campaign appear to be fake. We’ve seen this brand of politics before from similar groups.
As reported in April of 2016, Fight for the Future’s brag about the 100,000 citizens who responded to the USCO’s request for comments about the DMCA appeared to be at least partly fake based on an experiment conducted by David Lowery and his colleagues. In fact, it appears that the Canadian company Tucows, which is implicated in that same FFTF campaign was also employed in John Oliver’s so-called grassroots campaign “Go FCC Yourself,” which processed such thoughtful comments as “Fuck you Ajit Pai for what you’re are trying to do and I hope you die a horrible painful death with no remembrance to your name …” (I do love how the internet fosters the big ideas.)
I have already proposed in a few recent posts that Net Neutrality is so complex an issue that I doubt many actual citizens who sign these petitions understand what they’re signing anyway. Add to this a substantial number of fake signatories and geniuses like the one cited above, and I’m at a loss to discern how this politics of cybernetic ballot stuffing is any better than the Breitbart network of gobbledygook posing as news. I’ll keep an open mind about the FCC and neutrality and watch what happens; but so far, the only player in this whole story who has actually given me reason to think about the issue, rather than a lame talking point, is Ajit Pai.