Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Media Relations Firms Are Faking Public Policy Comments With Personal Details From Data Breaches

An impressive investigation by Jeremy Singer-Vine and Kevin Collier of Buzzfeed News:

A BuzzFeed News investigation — based on an analysis of millions of comments, along with court records, business filings, and interviews with dozens of people — offers a window into how a crucial democratic process was skewed by one of the most prolific uses of political impersonation in US history. In a key part of the puzzle, two little-known firms, Media Bridge and LCX Digital, working on behalf of industry group Broadband for America, misappropriated names and personal information as part of a bid to submit more than 1.5 million statements favorable to their cause.

The FCC proceeding is not the only public debate to have been compromised. BuzzFeed News also found that LCX, an obscure advertising agency based in Southern California, has worked on at least two other campaigns that raised similar impersonation allegations — issues that were so alarming that state legislators in South Carolina and Texas referred the matters to law enforcement. Media Bridge, a political consultancy based in Virginia, also participated in the South Carolina campaign.

Buzzfeed correlated nearly two million formulaic comments submitted by Media Bridge with identifying details from a 2016 database provider breach. Several of the comments are attributed to people who either did not support the repeal of Obama-era FCC Title II classification — like, say, Barack Obama himself — or were dead at the time “they” commented.

These findings are similar to those published by Gizmodo earlier this year, but this is the most concentrated and attributable data set that has been reported so far.

There clearly needs to be a way for the public to provide feedback on policy proposals, but this is so ineffective as to be meaningless. A Stanford University study found that non-bot comments overwhelmingly favoured Title II classification (PDF), but the researchers behind that proposal were only able to say that about 646,000 of the 22 million comments submitted were unique. And even if a comment was unique, it didn’t matter because the FCC ignored all comments unless they articulated a legal argument.

The system in place right now is basically the comments section at the end of a news article, except it’s supposed to provide influence over policy — but it doesn’t, unless you’re well-versed in law and can make a counterargument on those terms. Oh, and comments obviously submitted in bulk are not screened or rejected, so organizations can flood a proposal with countering form letters that do nothing to enable discussion.

Like all comments sections, it should be scrapped.