Companies responsible for generating fake comments and signatures for advocacy campaigns have been identified by New York State’s Office of the Attorney General. The lead generators, namely LCX and Lead ID, were responsible for forging consumer responses used in over 1.4 million public comments submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) between 2017 and 2019. In response, the Attorney General’s office is calling for changes to criminal statutes that would provide substantial penalties when many individuals are impersonated before a government agency or official through websites or electronic means. The identities of millions of consumers, including thousands of New Yorkers, were used without their knowledge or consent, a violation that often leads to severely limited or distorted results in public policy-making and voting processes.
The investigation found that the primary funders of these campaigns included an industry trade group and three of the biggest players in the US internet, phone, and cable market. These companies appear to have been unaware of the fraud, but there is clearly a need for increased oversight and monitoring of third-party political advertising and campaign vendors. While $615,000 in fines and penalties have been issued by the New York State Office of the Attorney General, there are concerns that this amount is insufficient and falls short of protecting individuals from future attacks on their identities and preventing corporations from manipulating and distorting public discourse.
In response to these findings, many are calling for a more robust identification and verification system that would ensure that all votes or signatures on public petitions can be traced back to real-world identities. However, the implementation of such a system raises concerns about privacy and the distribution of power and control by the companies managing such systems. There are concerns that the emphasis on verification and identification systems may end up disenfranchising individuals with fewer resources or access to financial services.
Moreover, the investigation highlights the significant political influence and power wielded by well-funded corporations and lobbying groups. With laws that do not deter companies from manufacturing fake responses and comments to influence political outcomes, it is up to lawmakers and regulators to implement more nuanced and effective solutions to prevent this kind of fraud in the future.
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Author Eliza Ng