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Political Operatives Faked Millions of Comments Against Net Nuetrality (buzzfeednews.com)
351 points by andygcook 20 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 85 comments



This is old news, well known and literally the whole "comments" was a sham anyway.

The voting was controlled by 5 people and split on party lines 3-2 [0]. NN was never actually up for debate.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Net_neutrality_in_the_United_S... - last paragraph


Someone should still go to jail for mass lying to the government. This would deter it in the future. Otherwise we are saying this is just the new standard operating procedure, astroturfing using dead people's identities is totally legal.


Wasn't aware of it though. Why can't news be slow?


Agreed. Nothing wrong with writing about "old" news. Just because I / you / anyone might already know something doesn't mean everybody does, and even if we already know something doesn't mean revisiting it is pointless.


Because then it isn't news anymore. It is history, and it's probably better found on Wikipedia: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Net_neutrality_in_the_United...


By that definition everything is history and nothing is news because everything is read sometime after it was first reported.

I’m sure you didn’t mean it as such but that sounds like the kind of argument often used to shutdown discussion of egregious behaviour.


Sure, but the focus of the report is that we now have an idea of who faked the comments. Since the FCC shrugged and declined to investigate, that's taken a long time to arrive.

Granted, "small media firms deniably hired by an industry lobby group" is basically what everyone expected, but it's still interesting to see how it panned out.


The last line of defense from the incumbent. “Anyways this is old news, everyone already knows I committed an impeachable offense, so why are we even talking about it!?”


I try to shy away from politics on this website but I can't shake this nagging feeling that this says something important about the current state of the US and the world. I am not a US citizen nor a resident, nor am I a Russian citizen or resident, so my opinions are absolutely subjective.

I feel like whenever an external agent such as Russia opens up the troll farms, the US gets all up in arms about the threat to democracy and how its poor country is under assault by the big bad meanies sending their virtual gargoyles to pray on its innocent citizens and influence their voting habits and put whoever they want in charge of the country and oh woe me, while they are doing it to their own citizens!

I don't hear Russia on the world stage as vocal about it as the US, if anything I'm hearing a lot more pragmatic (not something everyone agrees with) geopolitical discussion coming from that side, and I don't hear about them actively targeting their own citizens in "psyops" with the same fervor as the US.

Of course, this could mean that the press is free in the US and totally controlled in Russia so of course we hear only one side of the story, but I have this nagging feeling that whereas Russian government is actively and directly sabotaging its citizens, the US is engaged in far more psychologically dangerous activities targeting its state of being, and that the most damage is done by internal forces, not by external baddies.

I dunno, might be totally off, who knows...


>and I don't hear about them actively targeting their own citizens in "psyops" with the same fervor as the US.

Both countries are well versed in the topic but of course your media diet might affect how much you see on it.

Historically more than half the budget and employees of the IRA is dedicated to Russian speaking internet users and have been involved in way more elaborate schemes directed at Russian electors. They've physically impersonated journalists and gone to the door of anti-government activists for example. The Russian government also has a tighter media machine to encircle their propaganda targets by coordinating their attacks using TV, press and internet assets directly aligned with the state.

In the USA sockpuppetting and astroturfing by political entities is usually discovered due to healthy democratic tensions where both camps get to freely express themselves when they discover them.

The "alt-right" has been building a network of media organizations but have a harder time getting their propaganda laundered by the traditional media who tend to vet what they air/publish. The political fracture of the USA makes it harder to convince the entire country on 1 topic. The recent failed attempts by Jacob Wohl to create "offline" pressure on Robert Mueller or Elizabeth Warren and have them laundered in traditional media is a sign they're trying but not connecting yet.

Finally the example here is less about a political operative trying to trick the American constituents than giving the FCC a pretext (or biased analysis) to say their policy was popular.


Thanks for the comment, food for thought!

> Historically more than half the budget and employees of the IRA is dedicated to Russian speaking internet users and have been involved in way more elaborate schemes directed at Russian electors. They've physically impersonated journalists and gone to the door of anti-government activists for example. The Russian government also has a tighter media machine to encircle their propaganda targets by coordinating their attacks using TV, press and internet assets directly aligned with the state.

I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if this were true. Russia's government viewed from a distance does seem like the kind of entity engaged in this kind of 'persuasion' and operations, even through third party 'private' entities.

> In the USA sockpuppetting and astroturfing by political entities is usually discovered due to healthy democratic tensions where both camps get to freely express themselves when they discover them.

I think there's danger in this kind of statement. If one truly believes one's country to have a healthy way of resolving such operations because the balance of powers is so great, that person is prime for getting manipulated as they are letting their guard down.

> Finally the example here is less about a political operative trying to trick the American constituents than giving the FCC a pretext (or biased analysis) to say their policy was popular.

I agree, however if you ask me this gives an even smaller group of people control of the majority than if the target would be directly influencing the average American constituent. I'm not sure if I understood the idea clearly, but it seems a lot more dangerous for an entity to just be able to justify its own actions in order to influence laws in a nation, than to have to go through the hurdle of influencing the masses.


> I think there's danger in this kind of statement.

I agree, my intention isn't to encourage people in the US to let their guard down but rather give an explanation on how structural differences between Russia and the USA lead to different propaganda and manipulation dynamics.

Citizens in democracies can and are manipulated by many different actors, it's just that these actors are more likely to be adversarial at some point. Healthy media competition and freedoms are a good antidote but not the silver bullet.


>traditional media who tend to vet what they air/publish

I think we see more than ever that this isn't the case. The reality is that traditional media simply doesn't share alt-right views and doesn't want to give them a free platform.


I am also not a resident of these countries but I also don't think you are that far off. Noam Chomsky talked about this[1] a long time ago. Lies of omission etc are more common in "free" societies. My own view of this is that if you are only presented one side of the story, you are not really free as you are not making an informed choice. Sadly, it is widely accepted everywhere ( even in "liberal" societies ) that certain elites should define what is good and bad and then present it to us in an absolute manner, through deception, if necessary.

[1]https://youtu.be/kusAX4Th4N8


while they are doing it to their own citizens!

That's not what the story is saying. The FCC didn't create any fake comments. From one we know so far, one "grassroots" marketing company has been identified as creating fake comments. Their client hasn't been identified, but likely is an ISP, or an ISP lobbying group. This is bad behavior, but far from the Government psyops on its own citizens.

edit: yes, multiple industry lobbying groups have been identified. The FCC wasn't behind this, this isn't an example of a government psyop against its own citizens.


Did you not read the article? It was two marketing companies, Media Bridge and LCX Digital, working for Broadband for America.

According to their site, they represent "the hundreds of millions of Americans who are literally connected through broadband", which is a flat out lie. They're a lobbyist group that works for AT&T, CenturyLink, Charter, Comcast, and Cox, among others.

Now it's easy to say it's not such a big deal because it's private businesses and their right to "free speech", except for one enormous glaring issue that makes all that moot. The actual human beings are the same, the private businesses and the government are theoretically separate, but literally the same people.

This isn't even up for argument, it's the "elephant in the room". Ajit Pai, head of the FCC, used to be a lawyer for Verizon, a member of Broadband for America. The group paying to fraudulently manipulate the FCC and subvert the democratic process is directly connected to the head of the FCC. Verizon is fucking regulated by one of it's former lawyers!

Now that the lines have been blurred between government and private business, we're also crossing the lines between advertising and propaganda, which is psyops.


Pai worked as Associate General Counsel at Verizon from 2001 to 2003, over 15 years ago. Neither Pai nor the FCC didn't orchestrated or have anything to do with the comment campaign. FCC paying the marketing company for fake comments would be psyops. What happened is a problem, but not what the OP was suggesting.


Of course the FCC didn't pay for it, they just looked the other way while it happened. There's just enough separation that people like you can make the argument that it's technically not "psyops".

The FCC is complicit in the whole damned thing, so the result is the same and the industry got it's way. We can argue semantics though...


FCC didn't plant it, didn't pay for it, didn't orchestrate it, so not really complicit. The worst you can say is they didn't do enough to stop it because it was supporting what they wanted. Guilty of confirmation bias, certainly. Psyops? no.


If you look the other way while someone commits a crime, especially when you're a regulatory agency, that makes you a criminal. That makes you complicit, you're helping the criminals get away with it.

To me, you're acting like a jaw-dropping level of corruption is somehow excusable, perhaps because it's "normal"?


"it was supporting what they wanted"

Yeah, because the FCC and "Broadband for America" are only separate in theory. When you have the industry controlling the FCC to this point, the only difference between psyops and marketing is who's footing the bill.

You're technically right base upon a very literal definition of psyops, but missing the whole point.


> likely is an ISP, or an ISP lobbying group

The devil is in the details here- consider the current state of regulatory capture of the FCC, where Ajit Pai is arguably representing the interests of his previous employer, Verizon. It's not a giant leap to argue that the placement of Pai and the comments on the net neutrality board were 1) orchestrated by Verizon and 2) strategically use the government as a proxy to hide the exercise of their will.

I wouldn't say this is a case of `the government is doing psyops`, but rather `some entity is using the government to gaslight the people`. I don't blame the structure for this problem, but the people who corrupted it.


I certainly blame the structure, as in, the Citizens United supreme court decision that the constitution protects spending unlimited money convincing politicians to do what you want. It's just not something you can change without clarifying or modifying the constitution, and thus corruption is fundamentally a inevitable outcome of our current political structure.


I agree completely. And I'd go a little further, and say that allowing unaccountable commenting is incompetent or negligent. If there is going to be government sponsored public comment, there needs to a penalty for fraud.


I think it says something about the world indirectly, in that the US and Russia are big enough to influence other parts of the world through ripple effects. However, there are many nations that aren't going through existential crises of faith in their government to effectively lead them without institutionalized corruption and subversion. So I think the actual effects are more local than global.

In many ways the political body is just a reflection of the citizenry. The US is part of a global cultural shift, and that has consequences. It's not nearly as dangerous as, say, the Protestant Reformation, but there are some parallels. Belief and trust in the authority of the state is waning, new ideas about the ethics of treating each other are becoming more entrenched, and technology is furthering the spread of these ideas.

The US political machine is slowly eating itself, and a very bad economic downtown could threaten its foundations. If the US is going to be hurt, it'll probably be by within more than without. But you also can't talk about politics anymore without geopolitics. As the US changes internally, that makes it vulnerable externally. The current administration has been systematically giving up international influence in favor of nationalism, a trend other Western nations are also going with, which will result in an international shift of power. China may not be fermenting revolution here, but they're obviously bolstering their role on the world stage. They will be ready to pick up any money and power we leave on the table, which weakens the US and the west in general.

So sure, these kinds of "oh no our government is subverting itself" posts are problematic, but I don't think nearly as problematic as just how the minds of the citizens are changing, and how that is then affecting its stability.


All media in the US is controlled by just a few companies. Both companies and military units are working on forums to control the discussions. Sometimes pretending to be on both sides to make a discussion deviate from the actual issues.

Some US "friend"-states also have a huge influence in the online discussions, and in the media. They have their own military units and action groups.

And this is just the beginning of the manipulation that is going on online by actors.

The foreign influence is just minor and is exaggerated by the internal influencers as a distraction. That way the internal influencers can pretend that they are doing good work.

And this is just the beginning.

A good solution is to detect logical fallacies in the stories. How much are they used to push a certain idea? Is there actual evidence? And/or is there possible manipulation by an involved party.


> I try to shy away from politics on this website but...

Who was it that said, "Those who don't do politics will have politics done to them"


I wholeheartedly agree, but this is a community where I would like to see less politics.

Outside of forums, I am involved in the low scale politics of where I live because, as that one person said, I like to at least have a say in the way I am governed.


What's so "geopolitically pragmatic" in the discussion coming from the mafia that gained access to nuclear weapons and now dreams that it should be accepted as a world power? Unless you view mob tactics as pragmatic in general.

Also, don't mix up the mafia that's in power there now with Russia itself. They don't represent the country and its people, they are usurpers.


Tangential, probably, but this is a great article on the subject of the IRA/troll farms: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/magazine/the-agency.html


>I don't hear Russia on the world stage as vocal about it as the US

Does that, matter?

Does your hearing one country talk about this topic, and you not hearing another country talk about it matter or mean something in some way?


For me it does.

For me it does as a major part of my opinion forming mechanism is actually listening to the official declaration of countries regarding matters of importance to me.

Is there a reason why you are asking me these questions? Should it not matter? Am I an idiot for listening to the official statements of countries regarding international matters?


Do you consider the buzzfeed article "official declaration of countries"?

I feel like you anthropomorphize this situation almost to irrelevance.

"This country complained, this one didn't." is such a simplification that I think you're missing the actual topic.

If two countries nuked each other and one complained more, would it matter?


> Do you consider the buzzfeed article "official declaration of countries"?

No.

> If two countries nuked each other and one complained more, would it matter?

For me, yes, the official statements on the nuking countries would matter.


Why though?

Countries make statements for internal audiences, external, etc. They're hardly a good indicator of much of anything.

Let alone that you'd be basing your opinion about what they said, not what they did.


I base my opinions on a multitude of factors including and with giving great importance to what is being said. It’s easier for me to identify a lie from what is said and done at the source than from some 3rd party conspiracy machination.


OK, It's hard to tell as most of your focus is on who says what here.

> than from some 3rd party conspiracy machination.

I've no idea what that means.


Sure the US pushes propaganda on Russia, but it doesn't go around shooting dissident reporters in the face and throwing them in jail on false charges.


Not only that but it's legit hilarious how the US spent decades influencing (some times by force even) foreign elections and governments but suddenly when someone does it to them it's unacceptable.

It's pathetic.


I wouldn't call it pathetic. Hypocrisy? Yes, but all countries do this. I'm a bit afraid for people living in any country believing their little piece of the planet doesn't engage in geopolitics.


It's pathetic when people from any country equate what a country's politicians do with what their people want. I am not the US government. The US government may love the idea of foreign influence and hacking but a big chunk of its people do not. Please do not confuse these two things.


What's the alternative though? Politicians are elected by the people to represent the people's needs and wants because as of yet we can't really ask everyone's opinion on every decision. I think the political decisions of a country can be equated to the will of the majority, because every election cycle the majority can change their government's body. Or protest. Or get involved in politics.

Maybe you're not part of the majority, and you disagree with the majority's views, but I think it's not at all pathetic to equate the country's politicians with what the people want. You are not the US government, the the US government represents the US people's interests; both domestic and externally.


The US president was elected by 25.7% of the public. US democracy is beyond broken, and pretending the government represents the will of the majority, especially on any given issue, is a joke.


> I am not the US government.

Yes, sadly, you are. "We the people" is the foundation of the US government.

Our failure to prevent the government from pursuing these actions makes us tacitly responsible for them, even though there is virtually no path available to prevent them.


Most Russians get psyops TV and little internet


I am not aware of this, but upon a quick google I see the penetration is not that bad; in the U.S. it seems to be 88.5% [0] whereas in Russia it's 71.3% [1], so it's not all that far off.

Unless you are talking about the quantity of 'psyops' on the media channels and that I couldn't quantify.

[0] https://www.internetlivestats.com/internet-users/russia/

[1] https://www.internetlivestats.com/internet-users/us/


This is not as bad as I imagined it. Can't imagine much free press is allowed in Russia. What's left must self-sensor pretty heavily, especially after Anna was shot.


> I am not a US citizen nor a resident, nor am I a Russian citizen or resident, so my opinions are absolutely subjective.

believe me, this doesn't make your opinions objective ;)


Looks like u didn't read the last word


dyslexia for the win


The story is that citizen have nothing to gain from anti net neutrality laws. So basically, all comments against net neutrality are either faked or by someone who has skin in the game.

People ought to go to jail for this kind of crap.


> People ought to go to jail for this kind of crap.

Yes. The inability of ordinary citizens to ensure that this occurs, is what allows corruption to flourish.


Some citizens will argue that net neutrality will kill internet services that's subsidized by advertising. For example free access to Facebook. Or the social network bundles in South Africa[1][2]

Furthermore, I've met poor, conservative Americans who hate any form of government regulation. Even if it's patently obvious that they will personally benefit from some proposed regulation, they believe it will be bad for in the long run for their country. Their comments are not fake.

1: https://www.mtn.co.za/Pages/MTN-Social-Bundles.aspx

2: https://www.cellc.co.za/cellc/get-whatsappbundles

(Edited to give these examples)


Yes. A whole 0.3% of the non bot submissions said that. There are two legitimate sides to this, it’s just that the overwhelming majority of the public is in favor of one. Representative democracy failed here.


> Some citizens will argue that net neutrality will kill internet services that's subsidized by advertising. For example free access to Facebook.

But NN has absolutely nothing to do with that.


nroets refers to schemes like "Facebook Free Basics" [1] where mobile users in developing countries would get universal, free basic internet service.

This meant they could access Wikipedia, Facebook and Bing [2] but couldn't access EdX or Khan Academy or Google.

Although perhaps well-meaning, the scheme was widely opposed by net neutrality advocates [3].

[1] https://www.theverge.com/2016/2/8/10939594/mark-zuckerberg-i... [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet.org#Available_website... [3] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/feb/08/india-fac...


I'm right there with you that "this sort of thing", i.e. deliberately subverting the process of democracy, should be a serious crime on par with treason.

However, can we qualitatively define a line that demarcates "honest communication" from "malicious attempts to change public opinion"? You can't make it a crime to try convince people of things. The basic intent we would like to capture is it should be illegal to lie for political gain, including subtle lies of omission like anonymously pretending on the internet that you're a disinterested bystander. But lying is a very slippery concept to legally define (as is "political gain").


So on which side of your nebulous edge-casing slippery slope do you think hiring firms to write millions of fake comments from stolen identities to provide your captured regulator enough FUD should fall?


...the bad side? I thought I was very clear about that. I don't really understand why I'm catching flak.

Obviously the stolen identities is something we can definitively point to that can fairly straightforwardly be made illegal, if it isn't already. But most astroturfing campaigns don't do that, and although it makes this a particularly compelling case it's not actually the meatiest part of what makes it bad. Millions of comments from invented accounts to provide background FUD would also be very evil. But what part of that can we actually make illegal, without also compromising the free speech of you and me? Hiring PR firms? Writing comments on the internet? Unfortunately, "I know sketchy shit when I see it" just isn't good enough.

I'm not sure what you think I'm arguing. I want there to be answer. I was hoping for suggestions.


This line works OK for ordinary fraud, and even in the complex space of securities offerings.


You might find the controversial legal concept of “Honest Services Fraud”[1] interesting.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honest_services_fraud


Well, faking twitter accounts is one thing that should be dealt with, and I agree this is hard. But here, we're talking about spoofing actual people's identity without their knowledge.


So hacking peoples' identity without their knowledge is the bad thing here. What they did with those identities ideally is secondary.


>The story is that citizen have nothing to gain from anti net neutrality laws.

Uh? I very much enjoy my zero-rated services.


[flagged]


dang can attest that I've been here for years. :-)

Anyway, I'm pretty sure that customers like zero-rating services. Just think of it: for many people Facebook is the Internet. How is an exemption from the data cap for Facebook a bad thing for the end consumer? Yeah I know, maybe not a good idea in the long term regarding competition, but I don't think customers care too much about that.


What would you except in a country where most politicians depends on bribes from the rich? First you buy the worst politicians money can get. Then you purchase "public opinion" to back them up when they push your agendas.


Wait, so a lobby group was behind it all? /s

The reality is no one is surprised, and the lack of surprise is exactly why the system is broken. Let’s hope the states advocate for Net Neutrality.


I noticed this while looking through comments while they were still taking submissions. I was outraged. I told everyone I knew who cared. I can’t understand how this story isn’t bigger.

I would be much happier if at the time there was a counter force to spam submissions of the opposite opinion and at least make it abundantly clear that the whole thing was a farce. It’s wild that the FCC chair had the gaul to claim the public was against net neutrality from these submissions.


I mean, there was pro-net-neutrality spam, millions of comments worth. It's part of what Pai cited to justify the claim that this wasn't a one-sided problem.

Except... the pro-NN spam mostly came in two batches, which could each have been done by a single person. One batch used FakeEmailGenerator, along with what seem to be identities made by pulling randomly from lists of first names, last names, and streets. The second batch exclusively used "@pornhub.com" as the email domain. Both were discounted from every serious attempt at counting responses on each side.

It's the worst of both worlds, really. There was enough pro-NN spam numerically to claim the anti-NN astroturfing wasn't any worse, but it represented a tiny number of bad actors. Meanwhile, the anti-NN spam was vastly more malicious in both the influence of the perpetrators and the extremity of the behavior used to hide it. Randomly generating a fake name isn't a misdeed on par with identity theft, but it was certainly treated that way.


Astroturfing, troll farms, and AI driven slide bots are the future of discourse where the stakes are high and the conversation is in any way connected to the internet.

This will affect all parties on all sides of all debates.

I have no idea what this means for society or what should be done about it.


Welcome to the post-truth society.

Where this will end nobody knows, but that it will take us into some new 'dark ages' already seems pretty likely.


I would argue that we are already well underway towards those 'dark ages'. The fact is that today if you compare the quality of the news and the deluge of information you are bombarded with with say the news grade at the end of the 80's, just before the internet became a commodity that we've slid backwards considerably.

Losing quality newspapers as a source of information and replacing them with the current crop of online news sources, filter bubbles and the twitterverse does not feel at all like an improvement to me.


I am no lawyer, but I would assume that posting as another person online by filling out their name, en masse, is illegal.

I would imagine it's slander, fraud, and a number of other crimes.


I guess my question is why did Buzzfeed write this now? Didn't we know that dead people and Barack Obama were sending in anti-net neutrality comments in 2017?


Because there are new developments in the case, sadly persisting the perversion.

Context: https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2019/10/why-ajit-pais-un...


Interesting that DNS Caching is cited as one of the reasons to uphold the reclassification.

Perhaps that is the grounding that should be used to promote additional 3rd party DNS resolvers


I kind of see a pattern here between net neutrality with ISPs and pollution with car makers.

I'd like to think in both cases that by walking back (sensible) regulation at the federal level was bad for business.

I wonder what that means for online privacy laws. Should the federal government not even touch this?


I suppose it simply bears worth repeating that the democratic process no longer exists, and I'm assuming they did a recent investigation and found exactly what everyone was expecting.


I thought the public comments were a chance for experts or stakeholders to give their opinion of what should be done. I wouldn't be surprised if federal groups just ignored any template submissions. The public comments aren't a voting system, and the number if comments for or against a proposal has little meaning.


I don't think the comments mattered at all. At most, they provided political cover for the move. Ajit Pai was always going to ram this through. However, the corruption of the public comment system will also give our next president the political cover to change back and, hopefully, enshrine the change in law rather than easily changeable policy.


Details on Jeff Kao's analysis of the comments from 2017: https://medium.com/hackernoon/more-than-a-million-pro-repeal...


"Project Veritas" But of course.


Of course, no telecom executive will face any consequences for this. No jail time, no slap on the wrist. Business as usual in the good old United States.


There is a very close analogy from the past which may explain why net neutrality is a good idea: railways and Standard Oil. Rockfeller making special deals with the railways prioritizing his traffic directly resulted in the worst monopoly in U.S. history, putting millions of people in misery. If that isn't an example of why critical communication channels should be equally available to everyone i don't know what is.


Deception by omission. That entire comment section was fueled by bots on both sides.




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