Perverting the FCC Comment Process

In a recent article, BuzzFeed dug into the issue of the FCC receiving millions of bogus comments in the last two rounds of the net neutrality docket. During the 2015 net neutrality comment period, the agency received over 4 million comments. Many of these were legitimate comments such as many that were driven by HBO’s John Oliver, who prompted people to comment in favor of net neutrality.

When the new FCC wanted to reverse the original net neutrality order they had to again open up the docket for public comment. This second time the FCC got over 20 million comments. The comments were so voluminous that the FCC website crashed in May 2017.

There were fake comments filed on both sides of the issue. On the pro-net neutrality side were 8 million nearly identical comments that were tied to email addresses from FakeMailGenerator.com. There were another million comments from people with @pornhub.com email addresses. On the anti-net neutrality side Buzzfeed identified several organizations that uploaded millions of comments using names, addresses and email addresses that came from a major data breach. These fake comments were generated on behalf of real people who had no idea their name was being used in the FCC proceeding. The fake filings included comments from some people who had died and also some anti-net neutrality comments from a few Democrats in the House of Representatives who clearly were pro-net neutrality.

While the FCC’s net neutrality dockets received the largest number of fake comments, there are fake comments being filed in other FCC dockets and false comments are being made for legislation at state legislatures.

As somebody who often comments on FCC dockets, the fake comments give me heartburn. Flooding a docket with fake comments makes it likely that legitimate comments are not read or considered. What might be the most interesting thing about the net neutrality docket is that in both cases it was clear the FCC COmmissioners had already decided how they were going to vote – so the fake comments had no real impact. But most FCC dockets are not partisan. For example, there were a lot of fake comments filed in the docket that was considering changing the rules for cable cards – the devices that allow people to avoid paying for the cable company settop boxes. That kind of docket is not partisan and is more typical of the kinds of issues that the FCC has to wangle with.

Hopefully, legal action will be taken against the bad actors that were identified in the net neutrality filings. There are several companies that have been formed for the express purposes of generating large volumes of comments in government dockets. There is nothing wrong in working with organizations to generate comments to politicians. It’s almost a definition of the first amendment if AARP galvanizes members to comment against changes in social security. But it’s a perversion of democracy when fake comments are generated to try to influence the political process.

Fighting this issue was not made any easier when the current FCC under Ajit Pai ignored public records requests in 2017 that wanted to look deeper at the underlying fake comments. After a lawsuit was filed the FCC eventually responded to public records requests that led to investigations like the one described in the Buzzfeed article.

There are probably ways for the FCC and other agencies to restrict the volume of fake comments. For example, the FCC might end the process of allowing for large quantities of comments to be filed on a bulk basis. But federal agencies have to be careful to not kill legitimate comments. It’s not unusual for an organization to encourage members to file, and they often do so using the same language in multiple filings.

This is another example of how technology can be used for negative purposes – in essence, the FCC was hacked in these dockets. As long as there is a portal for citizens to make comments it’s likely that there will be fake comments made. Fake comments are often being made outside the government process and fake reviews are a big problem for web sites like Amazon and Yelp. We need to find a way to stop the fake comments from overwhelming the real comments.

Millennials and Media

I’ve read a lot recently in various trade articles talking about the percentage of Millennials that are watching (or not watching) traditional TV content. The various polls and studies show that Millennials are far less interested in watching linear TV than older generations. They are far less likely to buy a traditional cable TV subscription.

Millennials are starting to have a huge impact on our society. They now make up 32% of all adults in the US. They are more educated than earlier generations and 40% of Millennials between the ages of 25 and 29 have completed a bachelor’s degree compared to 32% for Generation X and smaller numbers for Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation.

But I have rarely read anything that describes what Millennials are doing in place of watching traditional TV. We now know from a study by Nielsen that part of the answer lies in the fact that Millennials read a lot more digital content than older generations. Digital content is content generated by online sites. Nielsen says digital content is now the primary source of news, sport, fashion trends and general knowledge for this generation – to a far greater extent than older generations.

Nielsen has begun tracking digital content and has begun to rate it much like they do for television viewing. Since advertising is shifting towards the web this tracking is of great value to potential advertisers. Historically we’ve been ranking websites by the number of ‘hits’ on their website. But the Nielsen digital tracking goes much deeper and measures time spent at each web site – which is what advertisers want to know. Advertisers have been able to get this kind of information from huge sites like Facebook, but never for everything else on the web.

Here are just a few of the things that Nielsen found about Millennials and digital media:

  • In terms of volume, the leading website used by Millennials is BuzzFeed. This site reaches 83% of US Millennials each month. The content on BuzzFeed is aimed at Millennials and the average BuzzFeed viewer sees an astronomical 38 videos on the site per month. Users don’t have to go to BuzzFeed to see the content, which is widely distributed through the various social media platforms. The platform carries news, the many videos, quizzes and the popular Millennial food site Tasty.
  • Just behind BuzzFeed is Group Nine Media. This company has four web brands including NowThis, The Dodo, Seeker and Thrillist. The companies content is aimed at younger audiences and now reaches 81% of Americans in their 20s. The platform has grown quickly to 1 million minutes per month of streamed content.

Another popular digital content site is MIC. This site offers news aimed at younger viewers and reaches over 25% of people between 21 and 34 years old each month. They are now attracting over 40 million unique viewers per month. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the site to advertisers is that 56% of their viewers are female.

Refinery29 is a site aimed at young women. It’s a mix of fashion, beauty, entertainment and money news. The platform is a mix of text articles and videos and reaches 62% of women between 18 and 34 each month, but a huge 88% of women between 21 and 24. In 2017 Adweek reported that the site reached 500 million viewers worldwide.

Another web site that caters to Millennials has an interesting distribution network. Rather than maintain a web site, VIX distributes content on social medial sites like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. The site carries video content on lifestyle tips, entertainment, food and life hacks. 62% of VIX viewers are female and VIX reaches 40% of US women between 18 and 49 each month.

All of this is bad news for companies that advertise on TV. Statistics show that linear TV audiences are aging quickly as younger viewers abandon watching real-time TV and its associated ads. Anything that is bad for TV advertisers is ultimately bad for the TV product and anybody that sells it. But the reality is that younger generations are abandoning the programming made for and watched by older generations. This is almost inevitable and is a market reality that the whole industry needs to come to grips with.