ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
When a federal agency proposes a new rule, it has to allow for public comment before the rule can be adopted. For example, when the Federal Communications Commission proposed repealing net neutrality rules enacted under President Obama, the FCC got more than 22 million comments. Turns out, millions of them were fake, the work of bots and of hackers using fake identities. The Wall Street Journal is one of several organizations that's been investigating this, and The Journal has also been looking into public comments submitted to other agencies, finding many others are fakes. James Grimaldi is one of the reporters on the series and joins us now. Welcome to the studio.
JAMES GRIMALDI: Thank you very much.
SHAPIRO: How much of a problem is this beyond the FCC? Where else have you looked?
GRIMALDI: Well, it seems to be rather widespread in almost every place we've been able to look, but we found it in five different agencies so far. The most recent was the Department of Labor and the fiduciary rule, which was a controversial rule that was promulgated under the Obama administration and is now being reviewed under the Trump administration.
SHAPIRO: This is about conflicts of interest with financial advisers.
GRIMALDI: That's right. It's requiring financial advisers to act in your personal best interests is the way the rule is. The industry pushed back very hard saying that this would cause a lot of extra costs. So we looked at those, and we found about 2 in 5, or 40 percent, of the ones we were able to survey apparently were not filed by the people who were associated with the names. Most of these were negative comments against the rule. And we selected out those that looked like they were from the general public and took out the ones that seemed to have legitimate letterheads.
SHAPIRO: What kinds of fake comments do you tend to see?
GRIMALDI: Well, you know, kind of get-out-of-my-backyard, grumpy, old men comments frankly.
SHAPIRO: I mean, do you generally see the same language over and over again? Do you see made-up names? Do you see names of dead people?
GRIMALDI: Yeah. Well, all of the above. We found a lot of that. But the thing we were most interested in beyond the fake names who are Barack Obama when we knew it wasn't him, we were looking for people whose identities appear to have been stolen or used in some way or tricked to put a comment that they didn't agree with.
SHAPIRO: This is actually a felony. Is there any accountability here?
GRIMALDI: So far, there's really no enforcement of this rule. I think when - it would come under the FBI cybercrimes division, and they have bigger fish to fry it seems like these days. You know, our investigation found as many as 8,000 people who said this is not my comment put online. I think maybe they may see that it's a bigger problem than they ever thought it was.
SHAPIRO: Why would a person or an organization spend the time and money and energy and commit a felony to put millions of fake comments online?
GRIMALDI: Well, it's a good question because the comments can be completely disregarded by the agency. But when you've put all these comments online, you can actually slow the rule from being implemented. The other thing is the comments can be used afterwards to persuade the new administration maybe to reverse a rule or to get a judge in a lawsuit to reverse the rule and say you need to go back and look at this or other ways through administrative appeal that may reverse the rule that was put into place.
SHAPIRO: There's an old practice called Astroturf lobbying where a company gets paid a lot of money to create something that looks like a grassroots campaign but actually isn't. Is this just a variation on that what we're seeing here?
GRIMALDI: Well, yeah. It may be weaponizing of Astroturf lobbying. It's creating bots to do it. I mean, it does go back to the tobacco industry where they were opposing the rule back in the '90s to regulate cigarettes. And they went to racecar events and got people to sign postcards. They were duplicate postcards, and they would send them in. Well, now we've got the Internet. All you have to do is write a bot. You could post it, you know, hundreds of thousands of times.
SHAPIRO: Now that you've revealed the extent of this fraud, do you get the sense that the federal government is taking the problem seriously?
GRIMALDI: Well, we've gotten some interesting responses from federal agencies. You know, the Department of Labor said this is a problem, and it should be investigated on our fiduciary rule. That agency's run by a former U.S. attorney, so I think maybe Mr. Acosta has an understanding of how serious this could be.
SHAPIRO: This is Alex Acosta, the head of the agency.
GRIMALDI: That's correct. For the CFPB, Mick Mulvaney, who's running that agency, also gave us a very serious comment like we think we should look into this. It's unclear what's going to happen. We know that members of Congress have inquired about it. I think it's still developing right now in terms of what might actually happen.
SHAPIRO: James Grimaldi of The Wall Street Journal, thanks a lot.
GRIMALDI: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.