CyberTurfing: The Way Democracy Ends

On August 3, 2017 the Moab, Utah Times-Independent published an innocuous-looking letter urging support for net neutrality. Moab, in Utah’s 3rd Congressional district, was facing a special election to replace retiring Representative Jason Chaffetz and the writer argued that support for net neutrality and Title II should be an issue:

It’s time for policymakers in Congress to take a firm stand for our access to a fast, free, and open internet. Unfortunately, we in Moab no longer have a congressperson whom we can urge to speak to this issue. We need a congressperson who will come out in support of strong net neutrality protections — specifically the Open Internet Order and Title II.

The letter was completely fake, however. It was generated by a “CyberTurfing” tool marketed by a company that runs fake grass-roots campaigns for any company or cause willing to pay its price. We know this because the company – New/Mode – brags about it on their web site (click on “like this one”). (The mention of Title II is suspicious in its own right since most people have no idea what it entails.)

Who is New/Mode?

New/Mode is a for-profit spinoff of, a non-profit organization that campaigns for policies that happen to be good for its donorssmall ISPs, VPN providers, non-profits, and Silicon Valley giants such as Google (see “Platinum Donors“). In the course of running campaigns to weaken copyright enforcement and reduce costs for over-the-top ISPs, Open Media developed tools that make it easy for people to make dozens of phone calls to elected officials per day, write letters to the editor distributed to multiple media outlets, and create fake tweet storms on Twitter.

New/Mode Fake Grass Roots Tools

These tools enable one activist to look to the Internet like a whole crowd. It also enables activists to look like they vote in districts where they don’t live and to make phone calls to Congress that look like they come from constituents when they don’t. This is a corruption of our democracy.

Songwriter Dr. David Lowery has written a complete rundown on how the tools work; I encourage you to read it. Lowery (the front man for the bands Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven) focuses on the current debate over the European Copyright Directive, but the insights apply across the board.

Why CyberTurfing Works

CyberTurfing, like social media, preys on human vulnerabilities. An emerging field of academic research focuses on these tools and their exploitation of the way our brains are wired.

One good paper on this phenomenon is Mark Leiser’s “AstroTurfing, ‘CyberTurfing’ and other online persuasion campaigns“, published in the European Journal of Law and Technology last year. Here’s the kernel:

Bots programmed to facilitate a CyberTurfing campaign take advantage of features of the online environment where they reside and our reliance to deploy heuristics when making judgments. A common error arising across various digital media platforms comes from our reliance on the repetition heuristic.

We deploy this mental shortcut believing that more people report a claim, the greater its credibility. In a series of experiments, a piece of favourable information is repeated across several subjects (strengthening its credibility). This is the common knowledge condition. In the hidden profile condition, the same piece of favourable information is held by only one of the subjects (weakening its credibility). Since repetition across sources bolsters credibility, it is no surprise that repeated pieces of information are more persuasive than unique pieces of information in the experiment: the common knowledge effect is not as shocking as it seems.

The repetition heuristic is fallible; a more costly requirement to offer and consider reasons for each bit of information is more likely to yield a better group judgement than intuitive tallying of their frequencies of mention; however, one of the hazards is the risk of the increased use of hidden profiles and the resulting common knowledge effect. Information and repetition entrepreneurs use a range of tactics to take advantage of our reliance of these type of heuristics to create either “norm bandwagons” or “norm cascades”.

In essence, we evaluate issues we don’t understand well – which is most of life – through shortcuts such as popularity. New/Mode enables campaigners to create the illusion that their programs are widely accepted, common knowledge beliefs.

Victims of CyberTurfing in Action

A February survey by the Tarrance Group (for American Action Network) found that only 22% of voters claim to be “very familiar” with net neutrality and 38% consider themselves “somewhat familiar” with the issue. Most voters prefer a legislative solution to a regulatory one like the CRA Resolution, 52% to 28%. Overall, voters are more worried about privacy than about ISPs.

In last week’s FCC oversight hearing in the House Communication & Technology Subcommittee, Democrats stressed the repetition heuristic in its two principal forms. Subcommittee Ranking Member Doyle stressed polling on popular support for net neutrality, explained in a particular way:

One issue the federal government has been addressing lately is ‘net neutrality.’ Net neutrality protections would ensure that internet service providers like Comcast and AT&T must allow everyone access to all internet content equally, and cannot block or slow down access to certain websites and streaming services or discriminate against or charge money for people to be able to easily access certain sites or services. In general, do you favor these net neutrality protections or oppose them?

(I would probably say yes to that, and I’m no fan of Title II regulation of ISPs.) The bit about “charging money for people to be able to easily access certain sites or services” probably confuses most people, and I wouldn’t necessarily answer it the same way from one day to the next.

Sinking Deeper into the Swamp

Doyle’s claim to be on the popular side of the issue isn’t an alarming statement for a legislator to make. Profiles in Courage was good reading because the events it covered are rare. In the normal course of things, we expect representatives to reflect popular sentiment, as far as it goes.

But full committee Ranking Member Frank Pallone effectively indicted himself before those who find the CyberTurfing campaign for net neutrality offensive. He stressed (skip to 17:22) “the vast majority of the 24 million comments” filed with the FCC last fall supported net neutrality and urged Chairman Pai to change course.

If New/Mode’s claims are to be believed, the vast majority of the comments filed with the FCC were phony. Is it either sensible or honorable for a member of Congress to fall for a CyberTurfing campaign?

It strikes me that seeking to persuade an expert regulator to change course on the basis of popular sentiment is misguided; the FCC’s job is expert analysis, not a finger in the wind. Falling for a ginned-up, ersatz version of popular sentiment is simply ridiculous.

The Coffman Dilemma

Not all the lawmakers with an interest on staking out a position on ISP regulation are members of the relevant committees. Colorado’s Rep. Mike Coffman is a Republican who represents the 6th district, adjacent to the one where I live. The November election is a tossup there because demographics have shifted since Coffman’s first election 8 years ago.

Coffman is triangulating on the issue, supporting the CRA Resolution to appeal to Democrats, and offering his own legislative solution – the 21st Century Internet Act – for Republicans. Coffman is the only House Republican to support the CRA resolution, a fairly problematic course that creates a privacy problem because of the previous CRA resolution.

The 21st Century Internet Act is a non-starter because it has no support from either party. It confuses the CRA issue and offers a fairly absurd policy. Its sole support is from the lobbying group that wrote it, Incompas. Like Open Media, Incompas represents CLECs, small ISPs, marginal businesses, and a host of large Silicon Valley players, such as Google and Facebook.

Transforming Peering

The Coffman/Incompas bill eliminates the unregulated market for Internet interconnection that has worked quite well for everyone, with one possible exception. The history of interconnection disputes shows a high likelihood that one of the parties will be Cogent, a transit provider.

Cogent signed on to the Incompas statement praising Coffman. The proposal to eliminate negotiated peering agreements is an interesting development given that Obama’s first FCC Chairman, Julius Genachowski, promised ISPs and transit providers that the FCC would never regulate peering. But that was then and this is now.

It’s unclear that Coffman’s “having it both ways” strategy is going to help him win re-election. Only 22% of independents consider net neutrality a “very important” issue using the expansive definition given above from IMGE’s poll. These voters will need to weigh Coffman’s sincerity with two pieces of information – the CRA resolution and the Incompas bill – in the balance.

It strikes me that candidates who stake out a principled position – without equivocation – are more likely to appeal to undecided and independent voters who consider this an important question. But we’ll see in November.