A fierce battle over the regulation of the internet was riddled with millions of fake comments in the most prolific known instance of political impersonation in US history.
Sarah Reeves sat on her couch in Eugene, Oregon, staring at her laptop screen in furious disbelief. She was reading the website of a government agency, where her mother appeared to have posted a comment weighing in on a bitter policy battle for control of the internet. Something was very wrong.
For a start, Annie Reeves, who loved to lead children’s sing-alongs at the Alaska Zoo, had never followed wonky policy debates. She barely knew her way around the web, let alone held strident views on how it should be regulated — and, according to her daughter, she definitely didn’t post angry comments on government websites.
But Sarah Reeves had a more conclusive reason to feel sure her mother’s name had been taken in vain: Annie Reeves was dead. She died more than a year before the comment was posted.
Sarah Reeves holds a family photo of herself and her late mother, Annie Reeves, on Sept. 20 in Eugene, Oregon.
In the spring of 2017, a virtual war was raging over the future of the internet, much of it through comments on the website of the Federal Communications Commission — the government agency responsible for regulating the broadband industry. Reeves wasn’t the only ghost to get sucked in from beyond the grave to do battle on behalf of giant telecommunications companies such as AT&T and Comcast.
At issue was a rule from the Obama era known as “net neutrality.” It was designed to protect the open web by requiring internet providers to treat traffic from all sites equally — and under Trump, the FCC was planning to scrap it. Conservatives had long branded the regulation as an assault on free enterprise, but advocates warned that its repeal would allow the broadband giants to manipulate traffic in favor of the highest-paying platforms, crowding out competition and stifling free speech. The stakes were high, and the public comment period attracted a staggering 22 million submissions.
The problem was, many of the comments were fake.
The New York attorney general opened an investigation and has since issued subpoenas to more than a dozen entities — estimating that “as many as 9.6 million comments may have used stolen identities.” But the FCC went ahead and scrapped the net neutrality rule in a massive victory for the broadband industry and a huge blow, consumer advocates said, for users. Some suspicious comments have been tracked back to particular political operatives. But the question of how millions of identities were marshaled without consent has largely remained a mystery. Until now.
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.
The rise of political impersonation threatens a core aspect of US democracy: the process by which federal agencies canvass public opinion before enacting new regulations. The process is not the same as voting, and the results aren’t binding — but they provide a forum for public debate, and officials are obliged to consider all viewpoints submitted, making them a crucible for lobbying by powerful interests.
The internet has made it possible for these consultations to be conducted virtually, vastly extending their reach in an apparent leap forward for digital-era democracy. But there’s little stopping anyone from submitting statements under fake — or misappropriated — identities.
The anti–net neutrality comments harvested on behalf of Broadband for America, the industry group that represented telecommunications giants including AT&T, Cox, and Comcast, were uploaded to the FCC website by Media Bridge founder Shane Cory, a former executive director of both the Libertarian Party and the conservative sting group Project Veritas. Cory has claimed credit for “20 or 30” major public advocacy campaigns in recent years, including, he says, record-setting submissions to the IRS, Environmental Protection Agency, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and “probably a handful of others.” On Media Bridge’s website, the company has described itself as having expertise in “overwhelming government agencies” with avalanches of public submissions, and has publicly dubbed its approach to marshaling comments the “Big Hammer.”
In the FCC campaign, Cory was working for Ralph Reed — a high-powered political strategist and titan of the Christian right who himself was working for Broadband for America. Cory, in turn, enlisted LCX Digital to find the commenters.
LCX, which in the past has also worked with Mary Cheney, the daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney and a powerful political consultant in her own right, was cofounded by John Hilinski, a digital ad man with a record of deception. He has claimed publicly that he cofounded the search engine AltaVista, which he didn’t, and that he has a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Southern California, which he doesn’t. He has also claimed that he toured in the band Jane’s Addiction — another apparent fabrication.
In a sworn deposition, a cofounder of LCX described the business as a “completely fraudulent” enterprise that had routinely faked data in its corporate work.
Hilinski did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ requests for comment; nor did Broadband for America.
A letter from Reed’s lawyer to BuzzFeed News said that any suggestion that he or his company, Century Strategies, “knowingly and willingly used the names and identities of individuals without their permission in comments” would be “false and defamatory.” Moreover, the letter said, Century Strategies had “directed its partners and vendors to follow above-industry standards, including requiring individuals to provide name, address, email, and phone number to verify who they are.”
The letter added that “Century Strategies also was assured by these vendors that they utilized extensive data validation to verify all names and addresses using public databases.”
Media Bridge also vigorously denied engaging in comment fraud. A letter from Cory’s lawyer, Bob Barr, a former Georgia representative, accused BuzzFeed News of preparing a “hit-piece” and noted that “Media Bridge professionally submitted comments to the FCC without hiding its identity, and provided contact information in the event there were any issues with their submissions — unlike the individuals who submitted many millions of comments from adult websites, foreign accounts and clearly fabricated data sets.”
LCX and Media Bridge are far from the only operators whose comment campaigns have been called into question. Fraudulent comments on both sides poured into the FCC during the net neutrality debate, and are an increasing problem for policymakers at the state and national level.
Still, the way the LCX and Media Bridge were able to overwhelm the FCC with questionable comments lays bare a new weapon political consultants can wield to promote the interests of the powerful, with potentially shattering ramifications for democracy.
“Spend a million dollars with Media Bridge,” Cory’s company told prospective clients in a post on its website, “and most likely, you’ll have a million people + advocating for your position.”
A demonstrator opposed to the roll back of net neutrality rules outside the Federal Communications Commission headquarters ahead of a open commission meeting in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 14, 2017.
THE FIRST BATTLE
The battle lines of the 2017 comment war over net neutrality were drawn in 2014.
Tom Wheeler, President Obama’s appointee to head the FCC, announced the agency would consider two competing approaches to prevent internet providers from blocking or slowing down access to certain websites.
Federal agencies publish thousands of proposals for new rules every year, and whenever they do, they are almost always required to put the plans up for comment. Anyone can weigh in, and the agency must take all viewpoints into consideration.
Officials insist that it’s the substance of the comments — not the quantity — that counts, but agencies often do publish tallies, potentially giving a boost to whichever side of the debate assembles a better cheering squad.
When the FCC opened the 2014 net neutrality proposal up for public comments, both the telecommunication industry, on the anti-regulation side, and progressive consumer groups, on the pro-regulation side, ran campaigns to flood the agency with responses from everyday Americans.
John Oliver dedicated a 13-minute segment to the topic, introducing the once-obscure debate to a mass audience. Despite its boring name, “net neutrality is actually hugely important,” he told viewers, later drawing comparisons between internet providers and the Mafia, and suggesting that “Protecting Net Neutrality” be rephrased to “Preventing Cable Company F**kery.”
At the end of the segment, Oliver exhorted his audience to send comments to the FCC supporting the cause. “We need you to get out there and, for once in your lives, focus your indiscriminate rage in a useful direction!” he said. “Seize your moments, my lovely trolls!”
The broadband industry, meanwhile, plowed millions of dollars into lobbying campaigns to drum up opposition to the ruling.
Cory says he helped the conservative nonprofit American Commitment muster nearly 800,000 submissions opposing net neutrality — a vast proportion of what was, at the time, the biggest-ever public response to a federal consultation, with nearly 4 million public comments.
American Commitment claimed a “landslide” victory. Still, the FCC’s five commissioners voted 3–2 to pass a strong version of the net neutrality rule, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. By 2015, the obligation to treat all traffic equally had been imposed on all broadband operators in the US.
Then Donald Trump was elected. And his new appointee to run the agency, Ajit Pai, soon took aim at Obama’s “open internet” rules.
FCC Chair Ajit Pai listens during a commission meeting on Dec. 14, 2017, in Wash
When Pai opened the repeal plan for public comment in the spring of 2017, both sides of the debate squared up for a rematch of the earlier fight.
Oliver again called on his viewers, causing such a flood of comments that the FCC’s website crashed.
The telecom side got to work too. Suddenly, despite polling showing substantial support for net neutrality, Americans appeared to be flocking online to defend the rights of the telecom giants.
Almost immediately, observers started sounding alarms. The tech publication ZDNet found that “anti-net neutrality spammers are flooding FCC’s pages with fake comments” and that several people whose names appeared as commenters said they had not posted a word. Reporters at Gizmodo and the Verge found similar examples.
Pro–net neutrality comments were called into question, too. Nearly 8 million identical one-sentence comments supporting the existing regulations were tied to email addresses from FakeMailGenerator.com. Many of those used plausible names but with nonsensical street-and-city combinations that do not exist. Another million comments, also supporting net neutrality, claimed to come from people with @pornhub.com email addresses.
By the time the comment period closed at the end of August, the number of comments had obliterated all previous records, with more than five times as many as the last time the issue had come up for debate.
In November 2017, New York state’s attorney general revealed that his office had been investigating fake comments for the past six months, but that the FCC had provided “no substantive response to our investigative requests.”
“My LATE husband’s name was fraudulently used after a valiant battle with cancer,” one person had complained to the attorney general’s office. “This is sickening,” said another, whose mother’s name had been used to post a comment several years after her death.
The day after the New York attorney general’s revelation, data scientist Jeff Kao published a remarkable finding. Using a technique known as “clustering,” Kao had found that 1.3 million comments were just iterations of the same template, generated by a computer but with certain words altered to make them seem like individual expressions of opinion. “President Obama’s order to take over Internet access is a exploitation of the open Internet” was a common, ungrammatical phrase. Kao, who now works at ProPublica, also estimated that 99.7% of the “organic” comments — those that didn’t appear to be duplicates or prewritten — favored maintaining the Obama policy of net neutrality.
But a few weeks later, on Dec. 14, Trump’s FCC voted to eliminate the rule — in a 3–2 decision that fell squarely along party lines. The broadband industry had won.
By now it was clear that the public comment process had been severely compromised. But one thing nobody yet knew: how it happened.
Demonstrators during a net neutrality protest outside a Verizon Communications Inc. store in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on Dec. 7, 2017.