Contrary To Media Claims, There's No Evidence Russia Was Behind Fake Net Neutrality Comments

Earlier this week we noted how the Ajit Pai FCC again shot down journalist FOIA attempts to find out who was behind the millions of bogus comments that plagued the agency’s net neutrality repeal. The move prompted one of the agency’s commissioners, Jessica Rosenworcel, to accuse her own agency of a coverup–since Pai refuses to work with either journalists or law enforcement investigations trying to uncover the truth of who was behind the comment fraud.

In an uncharacteristically snarky statement (pdf) issued the same day, Pai attempted to dismiss the criticisms as purely partisan attacks. But he also acknowledged something we already knew…that 500,000 or so of the email addresses used in the FCC’s comment form came from users purportedly on Russian ISPs. From his statement:

“…one finds the now-standard overheated rhetoric about “net neutrality” (omitting, as usual, the fact that the half-million comments submitted from Russian e-mail addresses and the nearly eight million comments filed by e-mail addresses from e-mail domains associated with FakeMailGenerator.com supported her position on the issue!).”

So this is nothing new. Media reports had noted previously how 444,938 of the millions of bogus comments happened to have Russian email addresses. The New York Times’ FOIA-focused lawsuit against the FCC also specifically highlights these addresses (many of which actually supported retaining net neutrality), likely in the hopes this would lend a little extra gravitas to court consideration.

Yet in the modern news media cycle, which can often resemble a game of telephone, numerous media outlets somehow rushed to the conclusion that Pai had “confirmed” that Russia must have been behind the efforts to stuff the ballot box at the FCC. Just a smattering of examples from this week:

That’s fairly remarkable, given that’s not what Pai said, nor is there any proof that “Russia” itself interfered with the net neutrality public comment period.

While many of these stories were more nuanced than the headlines, the reality is the headlines are all a pretty large majority of people read. The Daily Dot report in particular was a huge hit on Reddit, upvoted more than 66,000 times and circulated far and wide. Not too surprisingly, the media’s collective headline errors quickly drove many on Twitter to accuse Pai of being a Russian agent himself in dire need of prosecution:

Even Tim Wu, the Columbia law professor who coined the term net neutrality, circulated one of the headlines claiming Russia itself had been “linked” to the comment fraud:

Here’s the problem: while these 500,000 email addresses used in the FCC’s form appear to be Russian, that may not mean all that much.

Whoever stuffed the FCC comment section with farmed support (and in some cases opposition) for the repeal used all kinds of tricks to generate the bogus identities, including a bot that pulled names alphabetically from a hacked database of some kind. Many of the names used were dead people. Anybody could have plugged Russian email addresses into some of these form-generated responses, without actually representing the Russian government or even Russian people, thanks largely to an FCC website that didn’t even remotely try to ferret out spam or bullshit.

Putin’s adoration of hacking and disinformation is a legitimate problem, even if many may disagree on the breadth of the impact the Russian leader’s digital dick waving has had on the real world and elections. And while it’s certainly possible that Russia’s attempts to pour gasoline on our already napalm-esque levels of dysfunction extended to the net neutrality fight, there’s simply no evidence actually supporting that claim right now. Nor did Pai state that there was.

In similar cases, the evidence that inevitably appears usually points to a more obvious culprit: industry. These kinds of fake comments have been plaguing multiple US government agencies and proceedings in the states over the last few years, from proceedings at the Labor Department trying to rein in financial fraud, to efforts at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau aimed at thwarting payday loan fraud.

More often than not it’s the companies that benefit from the shenanigans that are found to be behind gamesmanship like this, since more than a few DC policy shops now offer this kind of greasy bullshit as an added value service for clients hoping to shape or influence public perception and government policy. The goal is usually to not just to create bogus support for bad policy, but to help undermine trust in the public comment process–often the only chance many Americans have to voice their thoughts on these decisions.

In the case of net neutrality, whoever was behind the fake comments was obviously keen on trying to downplay and discredit the millions of bipartisan Americans pissed off by the FCC’s blatant handout to giant ISPs like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Charter (Spectrum). Numerous investigations (at the GAO and NY AG, for example) and next February’s net neutrality court battle are likely to, sooner or later, shed light on who carried out this operation, who funded it, and why Pai’s FCC is trying so hard to keep most of these investigations from getting to the truth.

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