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FCC received thousands of fake letters supporting NFL's blackout rule

Astroturfing isn't just limited to the football field.
Jon Fingas, @jonfingas
September 10, 2018
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Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Fake FCC comments aren't just reserved for net neutrality opponents. The Wall Street Journal has discovered that the FCC received about 21,000 identical letters urging the regulator to let the NFL keep its blackout rule, which let it ban cable and satellite airings of home games that weren't sold out when the league blocked local broadcasts. These weren't even subtle attempts, either. In addition to using the identities and email addresses of some people without their consent, the campaign relied on some obviously fake messages -- at last check, Bilbo Baggins was more interested in magic rings than cheering on American football teams.

It's not certain that the NFL itself was directly responsible. The league claimed in a statement that it conducted "transparency public advocacy efforts" and "followed the playbook" of conventional advocacy campaigns. However, the bogus letters came with cover letters signed by former pro player Lynn Swann, and his assistant confirmed that he'd authorized their inclusion. The NFL also hired four firms to lobby Congress, and the WSJ has learned that a letter-generating website was linked to a PR firm that worked with the NFL at the time. Given that some of the letters swiped real people's identities, it's doubtful that all of the messages came from sincere supporters.

Much of this is water under the bridge. The FCC voted against the blackout rule in 2014, and the NFL ditched its policy in 2015. However, it does illustrate that online astroturfing (aka fake grassroots) campaigns are far from new at the FCC, and that the agency still hasn't done much to deal with them in the years since.

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