The 'Fake Comment' Problem

Stolen Identities, Tampered Submissions Are New Democracy Threat

Thomas Mullen
August 7, 2018

When the Federal Communications Commission closed the public comment period regarding its proposed net neutrality repeal last year, the final tally of total comments they received was unbelievable.

Literally.

The agency, tasked with overseeing America's broadcasters and internet providers, received almost 23 million public comments about the subject--one of the most controversial policy issues to be put before the public in years. But to log that many comments, 1 out of every 15 American citizens would have had to submit a comment to the agency--a scenario that would seem to test reality just as it might government servers.

"The amount doesn't pass the smell test," data scientist Jeff Kao told the ABA Journal, the official publication of the American Bar Association, in its latest issue.

In fact, Kao's analysis found that at least 1.3 million comments were submitted with a stolen or misused identity--the vast majority siding with the anti-net neutrality camp, according to the article. And Kao is far from the only one voicing concerns about the results of the FCC's net neutrality outreach. In fact, 23 states are now suing the commission over its decision to repeal net neutrality, claiming as many as 2 million Americans who submitted a comment about the issue had their identity stolen.

The subsequent decision to repeal net neutrality--now the subject of lawsuits from 23 different states--has raised the ire of even those within the agency. One of its own commissioners, Jessica Rosenworcel, put out a statement claiming the agency's comment process turned a blind eye to a number of threats--from stolen identities to Russian tampering.

It's no surprise that the increases in efficiency and transparency that have been realized through digital capabilities come with a host of less desirable side effects related to anonymity, hacking and other modern manipulations.

And the FCC is far from alone in facing the issue. Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) launched an investigation into suspected fake comments being submitted to several other agencies, including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Labor.

The Wall Street Journal even identified almost 7,800 people who claimed that comments attributed to them on federal dockets were fake.

Such threats would seem to dovetail with wider allegations of election tampering and other cyber attacks on governmental institutions.

As the FCC's Rosenworcel says: "There are eerie parallels between what we saw in the net neutrality public record and the reported interference in the 2016 election. We should pay attention... We should figure out what's going on."

The threat posed to the public comment process is clearly related to broader dangers posed to America's institutions. But what to do about it? For now, the FCC has not committed to upgrading its comment process in the wake of the potentially flawed net neutrality debate. But the simple fact is that modern menaces facing the public comment process need to be met with the most modern solutions. That's why it's critical that agencies embrace innovative digital tools to fight back against the vulnerabilities that accompany public engagement in the internet age.

The good news? The most effective solution for agencies--federal or otherwise--may also be the simplest one: to implement a digital public comment management platform as an additional protective layer in their public comment process. A turnkey public comment software partner gives agency leaders immediate access to a suite of powerful fraud-prevention tools--including bot protection, de-duplication functionality and enhanced search capabilities.

In addition to these innovative protections, a digital public comment platform also empowers agency leaders with the latest tools for identifying and grouping electronic comments by topic, location, and other criteria--whether for a rule change, policy proposal, or Environmental Impact Statement. It allows a real-time analysis of the top comment subjects and provides a customized comment response process to ensure the most effective communication between agency leaders, contractors and other stakeholders throughout a request for comments.

Addressing the issue of fake comments is so important because public data isn't the only casualty of this new threat. An unaddressed breach in how citizens communicate with their policy-making bodies also has the potential to erode public confidence in those institutions, which amounts to a threat against the very foundations of our country.

Or as Kao told the ABA Journal, the threat posed by the fake comment controversy is most concerning "because we all start to lose a little bit of faith in our democracy."