Facing a blizzard of online comments, many of which stridently oppose proposed rollbacks of net neutrality rules but many of which have turned out to be phony, FCC chairman Ajit Pai denounced social media “vitriol” for widening political and social divides between Americans.
Pai’s remarks today at the Media Institute in Washington came just two weeks before the FCC votes on a complete reversal of Obama-era regulations preserving broad access to the Internet. As digital companies line up to oppose the changes, which are likely to prompt fee-based limits on certain online content, Pai blasted social media. Its “vitriol,” he said, “seems to reflect the growing feeling that America today is a meaner, coarser place than it used to be, especially when it comes to politics.”
The head of the Republican-controlled commission alluded to aggressive behavior by opponents of the FCC proposal, who targeted Pai’s family home with signs naming his children earlier this week. “Harassment. Threats. Unfiltered rage. The past few days, I’ve seen a lot of that—much more than I (or my family) would like,” he said. “Many others feel the same way.”
Shortly before Pai’s speech, the Pew Research Center released a report analyzing the 21.7 million online comments submitted during the official period open for public opinion on net neutrality, which was April 27-August 30. That massive tally compares with just 450,000 comments in 2014, the last time the FCC was weighing similar changes to Internet policy. Pew figured out why the numbers soared: about 57% of submissions, it found, came from duplicate, temporary or disposable email addresses, with many individual names appearing thousands of times.
Just 6% of all comments were unique, while 94% were submitted multiple times, in some cases hundreds of thousands of times, according to the report. The seven most-submitted comments comprised 38% of all submissions and thousands of comments often were sent in at precisely the same moment.
Aaron Smith, associate director of research at Pew Research Center, said the examination of the comments underscores how much easier it is to digitally stuff the ballot box than it was just three years ago. “Online commenting systems allow groups and individuals to mount large-scale campaigns for public policies,” he said. “Such efforts were difficult to orchestrate in the pre-Internet era and even three years ago were not taking place at the scale it has this time.”
Plenty of legitimate opposition has also materialized, led by activists and tech companies including Google, Netflix and Twitter. And the days ahead promise to grow more rancorous, ahead of the FCC’s open meeting December 14.
In his speech today, Pai noted he was the first FCC commissioner to establish a Twitter handle, back in 2012. But he insisted that despite some rays of sunshine–disaster victims communicating in dire circumstances, for example–social media has done more harm than good.
“At the FCC, we’re working to make sure that every American is connected with high-speed Internet access,” the Donald Trump appointee said. “But while we’re becoming connected digitally, we can’t allow our nation of 326 million to become disconnected from each other. We need to see our fellow citizens as real people with real strengths and frailties, not as abstract online avatars.”
Pai even jumped to Taylor Swift’s defense, saying social media has distorted her choice to remain neutral and not publicly address politics, which has sparked criticism and even reports linking her silence to alt-right and white-supremacist fans.
“If she chooses to use her voice to champion an issue, great,” Pai said. “But no one should be demanding that she take a position on tax reform or illegal immigration. As Ms. Swift once intoned, ‘Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.’ I hope she keeps shaking it off.”