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Faking the count

Verizon is among the phone companies fighting for the right to compete directly with cable companies.

TEXT OF STORY:

KAI RYSSDAL: They probably don't have time to deal with it right now — what with falling all over each other to push gas prices down — but somewhere in Congress there's a committee working on telecommunications. And whether to let phone companies compete directly with cable companies.

As you might imagine, both industries have some thoughts on how that should go, so they've been asking consumers to pick up a pen and tell their representatives. But not every grassroots effort is what it seems. And one plus one does not always equal two. Here's Marketplace's Jeff Tyler:


A couple of years ago, Marketplace aired a commentary that triggered a flood of listener feedback. Normally, a controversial piece might inspire two dozen complaints. This time, we got thousands. But, after closer inspection, we recognized a pattern: Variations on a form letter, all generated by a single, coordinated campaign.

JEFF JARVIS:"It rather reminds me of Beau Jest, where you had maybe three soldiers in the fort but a lot of helmets on sticks trying to look like more."

That's Jeff Jarvis, media critic at buzzmachine.com.

In the age of Internet activism, he says it's difficult to measure public opinion accurately. Should you count thousands of responses individually? Or consider them collectively, as a great big One? Jarvis says, consider the challenge for the Federal Communications Commission as it counts indecency complaints. The agency fined TV stations $1.2 million for an episode of "Married by America" involving strippers and whipped cream.

JEFF JARVIS:"...they said that it was caused by 159 complaints, which struck me as ridiculously small."

Jarvis filed a Freedom of Information Act request to take a closer look at the underlying complaints.

JEFF JARVIS:"When I got it, the FCC said, 'well, actually with CCs and copies and miscounts, it was actually caused by 23 people.' And when I went ahead and read all the complaints, it turns out that 20 of them were exact copies. And that really only three people had bothered to sit down and complain to the FCC."

The FCC counts differently.

DAVID FISKE:"We count every complaint the same, regardless of the method of delivery."

That's FCC spokesman David Fiske. He says the agency does its own investigation to decide if the allegation has merit. If not, it gets dismissed, Fiske says, regardless of the number of complaints.

DAVID FISKE:"The initial complaint — the number of complaints — just doesn't have any real bearing on how we respond and what the ultimate action is."

Fiske says the numbers don't matter, but the FCC's own Web site suggests otherwise. In a recent statement, chairman Kevin Martin focused specifically on the dramatic rise in complaints, from "hundreds, to hundreds of thousands..."

The FCC says it got over one million complaints in 2004, but those numbers have not been authenticated. The names and addresses were never verified. Spokesman Fiske says the FCC has no reason to be skeptical.

DAVID FISKE:"The idea of false complaints or something you are describing is just never been a problem that's been identified."

But the problem has been identified by other government officials.

Edward McKenna is the mayor of Red Bank, New Jersey.

In a normal week, he receives about 10 faxes from constituents. In three days last November, McKenna says he got more than 200.

EDWARD McKENNA:"Those faxes all purported to come from people who said they were Red Bank residents. In fact, each fax started out by saying, "I am a Red Bank resident and I vote."

These so-called residents all wrote in support of new legislation to increase competition in the cable industry. McKenna noticed the faxes had names, but no signatures.

EDWARD McKENNA:"When I called them, a number of them said they had not authored any such letter. Nor did they authorize anyone to send it on their behalf."

He says the traced the fax number back to an organization funded by the telephone giant Verizon.

Dawn Holian with Common Cause has studied these front groups, also known as "astroturf."

DAWN HOLIAN:"Astroturf, at its core, is a fake grassroots group. It's the practice of setting up front groups that try to mimic citizen advocacy, but that are really all about corporate money. And astroturf groups rely on the covert nature of their corporate sponsorship in order to be effective."

Right now, federal telecom legislation working through Congress has spurred the cable and telephone industries to spend millions on astroturf. It's gotten to the point where the fake groups mock each other, as on the Web site PhoneyBaloney.net.

[ Sound clip playing from site: "The phone companies help pay for this ad so I'd tell you, 'We need to change the law. So they, the phonies, can compete with cable companies." ]

Just to be clear, that's the cable industry calling competitors phonies. Holian says that same cable industry funds its own phony front organization — Keep It Local New Jersey.

DAWN HOLIAN:"It's sort of ironic that this group defines astroturf lobbying as "something the Bell telephone companies spend millions of dollars on," when the cable industry is just as guilty of engaging in it."

Phone calls to both the cable industry group and Verizon were not returned.

With so many groups pushing their own forms of fake feedback, those on the receiving end might be tempted to ignore all of it. But Jeff Jarvis says companies would be better served by sorting through the electronic junk mail and identifying real consumers with complaints.

JEFF JARVIS:"Now, if you were smart, you'll deal with that one customer, that one customer again will talk about that. Will be grateful. Will help you as you help them. That's the new way to deal with the world. Not in huge gross numbers. But getting back down to an eye-to-eye level."

One-on-one is a tough combination to fake.

I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.
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