I have a pretty good imagination, and I like science fiction, but have a tough time putting myself in the head of folks who fall for the fiction that folks are falling for out there these days.
Take, for example, Pizzagate.
This particular conspiracy theory centered around rumors that caught fire on social media in the runup to the 2016 election, rumors that said Hillary Clinton was involved with an international child sex ring operating out of the basement of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor.
Setting aside the ludicrousness of the charge, and setting aside the fact that said pizza parlor didn’t even have a basement, a lot of people bought in to Pizzagate.
One such person, a fellow North Carolina citizen, bought in to it to the point that he drove up to the place, went in and opened fire.
Given that background, I was sufficiently skeptical when I saw a story last week about concerns raised by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman regarding “a massive scheme to corrupt the Federal Communication Commission’s notice and comment process” regarding changes to “net neutrality’” rules (see today’s Herald editorial for more on that matter).
Well, it turns out Schneiderman’s “massive scheme” appears to be the Real McCoy, and then some.
Back when Trump FCC head Ajit Pai announced his plan to deep-six net neutrality regulations put in place during the Obama administration in 2015, his agency opened its website for the mandatory public comment period so Americans could let their government know what they thought of the plan.
When the FCC had done so in 2015, it received a record-setting 3.7 million comments. Those comments helped put the current net neutrality rules in place.
This time around, there were 22 million comments, and it quickly became abundantly clear that many of them could be traced to “bots.”
And it quickly became clear that, while the public comment forum helped to pass net-neutrality rules in 2015, this time around it was harnessed by bots and fake users.
Thousands of anti-neutrality comments repeated the identical line, “The unprecedented regulatory power the Obama Administration imposed on the internet is smothering innovation, damaging the American economy and obstructing job creation.”
In fact, a senior FCC official said 7.5 million comments were duplicates that were submitted using 45,000 fake email addresses.
And there was a new twist: Instead of being signed “John Doe” or another pseudonym, many messages had names of actual people – people who exist, but also people who had no idea their name was being attached to comments.
A lot of them were New Yorkers, which is where Schneiderman comes in to the picture.
In a letter to Pai, Schneiderman wrote, “Successfully investigating this sort of illegal conduct requires the participation of the agency whose system was attacked. So, in June 2017, we contacted the FCC to request certain records related to its public comment system that were necessary to investigate which bad actor or actors were behind the misconduct. We made our request for logs and other records at least 9 times over 5 months: in June, July, August, September, October (three times), and November.”
The response from the FCC has been a chorus of crickets.
Schneiderman wrote, “… we have received no substantive response to our investigative requests. None.”
“… while some of these fake comments used made up names and addresses, many misused the real names and addresses of actual people as part of the effort to undermine the integrity of the comment process.
“That’s akin to identity theft, and it happened on a massive scale.”
Needless to say, this is all quite troubling. Start with the fact that if there’s no data as to what happened, there’s no investigation, no punishment and no start toward closing the door for the exact same thing to happen over and over.
The saddest part, though, is that the voice of legitimate American voters seems to have been lost, if not outright dismissed, in this whole sordid affair.
There are a lot of stories out there these days that are simply made up.
And then there are those one wishes was made up.
We’ll file this one under the latter category.
Jim Buchanan is special projects editor for The Sylva Herald.