3 min read

In December 2017, the Federal Communications Commission voted to kill net neutrality protections. This was done ignoring the overwhelming support of the masses towards safeguarding the open internet. Now, fresh reports have emerged according to a study made by a Stanford University researcher, out of the 22 million comments filed to the agency addressing the move to revoke regulations, nearly 100% of those comments were fake.

Assisted by data scientist Jeff Kao;  Ryan Singel, a media and strategy fellow at Stanford, sifted through all submitted comments to present his findings. Using a machine learning program, Kao segregated millions of comments that were fake and duplicated and most certainly taken from form and letter campaigns. He took the 60+GB dataset of comment, and mapped each comment into semantic space vectors. Further, he clustered the comments based on their meaning, which resulted in approximately 150 clusters of comment submissions.

In the end, he was left with about 800,000 unique comments. What’s surprising is that, out of all those comments only 0.3 percent supported the repeal of net neutrality. The question then arises, on what basis did the FCC decide to repeal net neutrality? Moreover, did they not have a system in place to filter out bot sent comments?

The answer to the latter question is a big ‘NO’. The report suggests that the FCC did nothing to prevent comment stuffing and comment fraud. Most of the comments were submitted under false identities using emails belonging to journalists, lawmakers, and dead people.

Subsequently,  Kao contacted commenters by emailing them and asking them if they submitted the comment related to their email address. While the responses were varied, users submitting pro-net neutrality comments, confirmed that they did submit the comment.

Moreover, after the public had cast its vote, there was no information released to the  public, journalists and policy makers to actually understand what Americans had told the FCC about the repeal of the 2015 Open Internet Order.

Ryan’s findings were released on 15th October and first reported by Motherboard. The report, entitled “Filtering Out the Bots: What Americans Actually Told the FCC about Net Neutrality Repeal,” points out that Americans were well-informed on the topic of net neutrality.

Ryan and Kao further went on to match and sort comments based on geographic areas. They deduced that  646,041 unique comments were matched to Congressional districts. The resulting reports for every district explores the concerns of the citizens over net neutrality.

The report also suggests measures for FCC and other government agencies to avoid comment stuffing while making it easy for Americans to participate in nationwide discussions.

The report suggests a confirmation email to be sent once a comment is posted by a user. The owner of the email can confirm or deny if they sent the comment. For users without an email-id, comments can be marked as “no email address given.” Comments could then be labeled as “confirmed,” “unconfirmed,” “denied,” “invalid email address,” or “no email address given.” This would aid researchers and policymakers to identify likely fake comments.

Fake email id’s can be distributed and registered across the federal agencies to combat comment stuffing. To identify bot-controlled email address, the system could mark every comment with a count of the number of submissions from that particular email address. This will help discard repetitive comments from the same email id.

You can download the full Filtering Out the Bots report to explore links to the individual reports for every Congressional district and state.

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