A right-wing group says it got 800,000 people to sign its net neutrality protest—but the vast majority of those signers came from paid email advertisements.
On September 17th, a week after the "Internet Slowdown" net neutrality protest, conservative strategist Phil Kerpen sent an email blast to his followers: "We were up against over 40,000 websites in a deceptive, manipulative effort to scare their readers into supporting Internet regulation … BUT WE WON!"
Kerpen said that his group, called American Commitment, had successfully refuted a narrative common in tech politics: that the American people want the Federal Communications Commission to do something—anything—to preserve net neutrality and prevent so-called internet fast lanes and paid prioritization from becoming the norm.
"The effort to reduce to Internet to a government-controlled 'public utility' generated a total of 777,364 comments," he wrote. "Our effort through StopInternetRegulation.org beat them with 808,363!"
So, how did Kerpen manage to swing a process that, according to a Sunlight Foundation analysis, had been dominated by people who clearly favored net neutrality by a 99-1 margin?
First, he bought them, then he misled them.
Kerpen has suggested that this conservative backlash to the net neutrality movement—an issue that has some support on both sides of the aisle—proves that the American people don't really want net neutrality, that nothing is wrong with the way internet access is sold to Americans. To be fair, there are certainly some conservatives who favor regulating the internet with a lighter touch than Title II advocates are suggesting, and there are some nuanced arguments out there opposing net neutrality.
Some media outlets have taken Kerpen's bait, suggesting that there has been a grassroots backlash to pro-net neutrality movements like the Battle for the Net. But don't believe the hype.
If it were really happening, you wouldn't have to fake it
Kerpen's grassroots coalition of 808,363 petition signers came almost entirely through paid email advertisements sent out through popular conservative websites such as Town Hall, The Washington Times, Human Events, and Red State. Email blasts were sent to hundreds of thousands of people with subject lines that had nothing to do with net neutrality, such as "Only Days to Stop Obama's Takeover."
In the emails themselves, Kerpen called net neutrality "marxist," suggested that maintaining net neutrality would "erase your internet freedoms, upend your right to privacy, censor the content you view on Internet, seize control of e-commerce, keep records of the sites you visit and when, track what you read and for how long and so much more!"
The emails also claim that reclassifying the internet as a Title II utility would allow "public sector unions [to] go on strike for higher wages, fat benefit packages, platinum health care plans, and 'Golden Parachute' retirement packages—all at your expense."
Those fears are misguided for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that regulating a major company such as Comcast and Verizon isn't the same as regulating the content that's actually on the internet.
Preserving net neutrality is not the next step toward censorship or privacy violations—Kerpen likened this "internet takeover" to something that "sounds more like a story coming out of China or Russia"—nor has any of the ongoing political debate involved anything regarding public sector compensation packages.
In fact, the parts of Kerpen's arguments that actually apply to net neutrality regulation are supported by the very people he's arguing against.
"The funny thing about Kerpen's efforts is that net neutrality supporters agree with him. We are against 'a government takeover of the Internet.' We're against regulation of the Internet, too," Tim Karr, senior director of strategy at Free Press, a group that helped organize the pro-net neutrality "Internet Slowdown," told me. "Title II is a regulation of ISPs. And even though companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon want us to think that they are the internet, they are not."
In an interview, Kerpen didn't say how much he or his group actually spent on the advertisements, or how many emails he actually paid for, but told me that the group "rented a variety of lists" to get the message out.
Kerpen played on the far right's fear of government and dislike of Obama to get hundreds of thousands of people to sign a series of petitions that have no information about the issue at hand and has no links to places to learn more about the issue. A Senatorial press office told me it hasn't received the petitions, which Kerpen said he had "hand delivered" before admitting that they could have been misplaced.
The question is, does the conservative base that Kerpen is appealing to feel strongly about net neutrality? Or are they simply taking a chance to slam the left when Kerpen is giving them one?
Despite a smattering of mentions in the tech press, Kerpen's movement has not riled up anyone on the right enough to warrant a story in any of the publications that would normally be very happy to trumpet a conservative win over liberal activists. In the days after Kerpen's "victory" email, none of The Daily Caller, Washington Free Beacon, Red State, The Washington Times, Breitbart, The Blaze, or Hot Air had covered the conservative anti-net neutrality movement.
Only Town Hall ran a single column, called "Opponents of Internet Regulation Carry the Day," written by Kerpen himself, while Human Events ran an advertorial on its site paid for by American Commitment.
"I think most people are heavily focused on much bigger news stories right now. There's a heavy electoral focus," Kerpen told me in a phone interview that he agreed to give only if he could record and publish the audio.
"I think we should have more media coverage. I have been disappointed about the lack of coverage," he added. "I think it would be ridiculous to attempt to draw the conclusion that the enormous number of people don't matter because there hasn't been media coverage."
In addition to emails, Kerpen took to social media, organizing a paid campaign through Thunderclap.it, a website that allows people to pledge their Twitter accounts to amplify a single tweet. Roughly 3,000 people agreed to do so, who had a total of 1.8 million Twitter followers.
According to Thunderclap, this was the most influential tweet of the movement. It got one retweet:
Several Twitter searches have turned up less than 10 tweets using the hashtag #StopInternetRegulation that do not appear to have come from Thunderclap (as in a person actually spent the time to write their own tweet supporting the movement). The link to his campaign has never been saved on Bit.ly or shared through that method, which is often a popular way for links to make the rounds on Twitter.
Meanwhile, over on the other side, the Internet Slowdown spent no money on paid advertisements or email lists, according to organizers at Free Press, Fight for the Future, Demand Progress, and Engine. That particular campaign "only" spurred 777,364 comments filed to the FCC, but it also inspired at least 312,000 calls to Congress, 1.1 million Facebook shares, and thousands and thousands of tweets.
The corporate participants, such as Vimeo, Tumblr, Reddit, and Netflix, took part because the ideals aligned with their business plans and thinking on the issue, not because they were paid to do so. Similar campaigns by those groups and others also spurred 4.7 million total comments on the FCC's net neutrality proceedings—many of which are not the form letters that the agency will almost definitely ignore.
Instead, those who favor net neutrality have rallied the masses to learn about the issue—many have written thoughtful comments to go along with those form letters.
I asked Kerpen if he thought many people who saw his petition had decided to file a comment manually to the FCC to share more nuanced takes than the ones he had written up.
"I think very few of them did that, because we didn't ask them to," he said.
Earlier in our conversation, Kerpen said that pro net neutrality activists have long been sharing "scare stories" about what would happen without net neutrality, none of which have come to pass, he said.
"If it were really happening, you wouldn't have to fake it," Kerpen said.