Watchdog Q&A

Published — August 28, 2020

Q&A: Jeremy Singer-Vine on uncovering fake voter outrage

(Stock.adobe.com)

Introduction

For this week’s reporter Q&A, we spoke to Jeremy Singer-Vine about his BuzzFeed News story on how political operatives are faking voter outrage on behalf of the rich and powerful. Under Trump, the Federal Communications Commission planned to scrap President Obama’s “net neutrality” rule, under which internet service providers are supposed to treat all internet communications the same. The public comment period attracted 22 million submissions. The problem: Many were fake. Two little-known firms misappropriated names and personal information to submit more than 1.5 million statements favorable to their cause. Singer-Vine’s investigation offers a window into how a democratic process — in which federal agencies canvass public opinion before enacting new rules — was seriously skewed. 

*Interview lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

How did you get the story? What led you to pursue it?

For most of 2017, I had been following the FCC’s fake-comment debacle — but I hadn’t been following particularly closely. That all changed in November 2017, when data scientist Jeff Kao identified a set of 1.3 million comments that appeared to have been generated by some sort of Mad Libs–style algorithm.

We managed to obtain a massive dataset of the comments that had been bulk-uploaded to the FCC. The first breakthrough came soon after we received those files, when I ran large samples of the email addresses in them through Have I Been Pwned, a website that identifies whether an address has been exposed in any of hundreds of major data breaches. The results were stark; the kind of results that make you say, out loud and to nobody in particular, wow.



In one particular group of 1.9 million comments, 94% of the email addresses belonged to people who had fallen victim to a hack known as the Modern Business Solutions data breach, in which millions of people’s personal information, including full names, birthdates, home addresses and email addresses, had been stolen.

As chance would have it, the 1.3 million algorithmically-generated comments that Kao had identified accounted for a huge chunk of those 1.9 million, all of which had been uploaded by the same account. I was hooked — I had to figure out how this had happened.

What were the challenges of reporting and how did you navigate them?

We encountered further obstacles outside of the data. For instance: One of the companies that our reporting led us to was LCX Digital, an esoteric advertising agency in Southern California. Before we began our investigation, the company had received virtually zero scrutiny and had left only a very light trace online. To pierce LCX’s veil of secrecy, we had to interview former employees and business partners, scour old versions of LCX’s website on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, and comb through scores of business filings.

One major breakthrough came when we discovered an extraordinary deposition by one of the company’s cofounders. The deposition not only accused the LCX’s main owner of extensive deception, but also claimed that the company was a “completely fraudulent” enterprise — with details that bore striking similarities to the evidence we were beginning to uncover in the FCC data.

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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