“Fake comments” to the Federal Communications Commission instantly became the Washington-swamp uproar of the week.
The political context is rich.
The news: New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman revealed he’s been investigating big numbers of false public comments to the FCC in its review of net neutrality rules.
“The FCC has refused multiple requests for crucial evidence,” Scheiderman says.
Net neutrality in principle calls for internet service providers to refrain from intentionally blocking, slowing down or charging money for specific websites and online content.
President Donald Trump’s appointed chairman Ajit Pai this week unveiled plans to remove so-called net neutrality regulations put in place during the administration of President Barack Obama.
One running theme of this story involves Schneiderman, who has earned the status of one of Republican Trump’s targets for nasty name-calling.
Schneiderman has worked with special counsel Robert Mueller on the criminal case against 2016 campaign manager Paul Manafort.
Last year, the attorney general won a $25 million settlement of alleged fraud at the defunct Trump University.
Another thread of the story is how the FCC has rapidly become a forum for unusual controversy under Pai.
For one thing, the commission has begun rethinking its rule limiting the number of TV stations a single corporate entity can own.
For another, Pai has issued a rare open rebuke of the president.
Peeved by news coverage, Trump grunted Oct. 11 on Twitter: “With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License?
“Bad for country!”
Pai replied: “The FCC, under my leadership, will stand for the First Amendment. Under the law, the FCC does not have the authority to revoke a license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast.”
In an odd way, the new Schneiderman flap echoes part of the election-meddling probe ongoing in Congress. By some accounts, an anti-net neutrality “bot” has posted thousands of identical comments on the FCC website in what the AG calls a “massive scheme” to tilt the playing field.
But as this issue unfolds, key questions come up.
Why is this different from an interest group mailing thousands of form post cards to the government regulators? Or getting constituents to contact officials in a phone blitz on a particular issue? For years, the term “astroturf roots” has been applied to this sort of activity.
“Bots” come into play in the Russia probes because such devices targeted many voters on social media during last year’s national election. Their impact is still being studied.