What drove spike in public comments on net neutrality? Likely, a comedian
Since the Federal Communications Commission announced its proposed rule changes governing net neutrality in May, the agency has released nearly 450,000 comment records that it received from the public. The Pew Research Center analyzed the full corpus of comments from the open comment period that ended on July 18th on the agency’s proposal to allow internet providers to create and charge a premium for “fast lanes” to deliver internet content.
While other researchers analyzed the content of the comments, we focused on the volume and submission dates of when the FCC received comments from the public in order to deduce possible influences on the public’s response. While some evidence suggests that the amount of news media coverage mirrored that of the public’s comments, our analysis found that more likely drivers were grassroots efforts, as well as a popular comedian’s 13-minute segment on net neutrality that aired on cable television and found a large audience online.
On HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” Oliver made a case that the agency’s proposed rules would undermine the open internet. The reason most Americans weren’t tuned into the issue, he said, is because it was extremely complicated and “boring.” Net neutrality is the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should treat all internet traffic equally. Supporters of the FCC’s proposed rule changes argue that ISPs should have the right to prioritize traffic and charge for their services as they wish. Opponents of the rule changes suggest that fast lanes are anti-competitive, and will prevent start-ups and smaller companies from competing with more well-established companies that can afford to pay for prioritized web traffic. Opposing the rule changes, Oliver called for viewers to send comments to the FCC and quipped that “the point is, the internet in its current form is not broken, and the FCC is currently taking steps to fix that.”
In the week before this sketch aired on Sunday June 1st, the FCC received 3,076 comments. In the week after the sketch aired, the FCC received 79,838, a drastic increase that caused the system to have “technical difficulties” — providing some weight behind media reports that Oliver helped crash the federal agency’s comment system. A YouTube clip of Oliver’s show has been viewed more than 5 million times.
Our analysis also examined another possible driver of comments to the FCC: the mainstream news media. We compared cable news and major newspaper coverage of net neutrality over the course of five months to evaluate what correlations could be drawn between the volume of public comments received by the FCC and traditional media coverage of net neutrality. While there were some small correlations between news coverage and volume of comments, the largest increases in comments did not correlate with news attention.
To examine newspaper coverage, the Pew Research Center reviewed articles mentioning net neutrality in 23 of the top 24 most widely distributed daily newspapers in the United States. The analysis reveals that both newspaper coverage and the submission of FCC comments shared a peak in mid-May. Both of these peaks were likely driven by the FCC’s announcement of proposed rule changes on May 15th. However, unlike the timeline for comments, newspaper coverage did not increase significantly in June or near the comment deadline in July.
A supplemental analysis of the Wall Street Journal, which is not archived in the database used for the other newspapers, found that coverage of net neutrality showed two peaks in coverage: late February and mid-May, with both weeks publishing six articles. While no articles were published in late May or early June, four articles were published during the last week before the FCC closed the open comment period. (Note: The FCC has opened public responses to comments on its web site through Sept. 15.)
Similarly, when we examined news coverage of net neutrality on the three major cable news channels—Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC—it became apparent that the issue received little coverage. Examining 24 hours a day of content on these channels, between February 2nd and July 19th, “net neutrality” was only mentioned 28 times. None of these news stories aired in late May or early June, indicating that coverage by cable news channels does not explain the peak in comments in early June. Additionally, the surge in comments in July was not accompanied by increased media coverage in cable news programs. Comparing coverage across channels, the analysis reveals that MSNBC mentioned “net neutrality” 16 times, Fox News did so 9 times, while CNN had only 3 mentions.
If newspaper and cable news coverage appears unlikely to be related to the surge in comments in early June, what else could help explain the drastic increase? An FCC spokesperson declined to comment on what drove the spike in comments, saying that it falls outside of the scope of their analysis. Given the popularity of John Oliver’s sketch and the sharp increase in comments after it aired, it’s clear that there was a high correlation between comedian’s segment and the surge in public comments to the FCC and little to no correlation to media coverage in newspapers or cable news channels.
In fact, a surge in comments near the deadline for the FCC’s comment period was not accompanied by increased media coverage in newspapers or cable news channels, suggesting that other forces, perhaps grassroots efforts, largely drove the increase.
To further explore this possibility, we identified whether the text of each comment contained a unique set of 82 characters that were identical matches to comment templates provided by two pro-net neutrality organizations, Battle For the Net and Dear FCC.org. Our analysis finds that 45% of the comments submitted in the last week of the FCC’s comment period were from templates provided by these advocacy websites, which encouraged the public to support or oppose the FCC’s proposal. In a separate analysis using a different methodology, the Sunlight Foundation identified at least 20 different pro-net neutrality templates containing comments with “very low amounts of text variation” that accounted for about 60% of the FCC’s total comments received in their analysis.
Illustrating how intertwined John Oliver has become with this debate, the homepage for Battle For the Net features the entire 13-minute sketch from Oliver under the title “Understand the battle,” with the caption that “nobody explains it better than John Oliver.”
Finally, we sought one more measure of public interest into net neutrality. Google Trends is a tool that measures how popular a search term has been, serving as a gauge of public interest in a topic. Similar to the timeline for comments, searches for “net neutrality” peaked in mid-May, early June, and mid-July. Net neutrality comments submitted to the FCC coincided with the public seeking out more information about net neutrality online.