The state attorney general’s office in Alabama is probing whether a Democrat-inspired campaign to spread “Russian” disinformation during a special U.S. Senate election last year cost GOP candidate Roy Moore a victory.
“The information is concerning,” GOP state Attorney General Steve Marshall told the Washington Post Thursday. “The impact it had on the election is something that’s significant for us to explore, and we’ll go from there.”
Marshall has not yet launched an official investigation, however, into whether the tactics employed by two Dem-aligned tech firms tilted the race for former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ old Senate seat to Democrat Doug Jones.
The New York Times deserves kudos for a bombshell story the paper published ahead of the Christmas holiday regarding an ‘experiment’ to mimic Russian election meddling via social media manipulation during the 2016 election.
The Times reported:
As Russia’s online election machinations came to light last year, a group of Democratic tech experts decided to try out similarly deceptive tactics in the fiercely contested Alabama Senate race, according to people familiar with the effort and a report on its results.
The secret project, carried out on Facebook and Twitter, was likely too small to have a significant effect on the race, in which the Democratic candidate it was designed to help, Doug Jones, edged out the Republican, Roy S. Moore. But it was a sign that American political operatives of both parties have paid close attention to the Russian methods, which some fear may come to taint elections in the United States.
One participant in the Alabama project, Jonathon Morgan, is the chief executive of New Knowledge, a small cyber security firm that wrote a scathing account of Russia’s social media operations in the 2016 election that was released this week by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
An internal report on the Alabama effort, obtained by The New York Times, says explicitly that it “experimented with many of the tactics now understood to have influenced the 2016 elections.”
The project’s operators created a Facebook page on which they posed as conservative Alabamians, using it to try to divide Republicans and even to endorse a write-in candidate to draw votes from Mr. Moore. It involved a scheme to link the Moore campaign to thousands of Russian accounts that suddenly began following the Republican candidate on Twitter, a development that drew national media attention.
“We orchestrated an elaborate ‘false flag’ operation that planted the idea that the Moore campaign was amplified on social media by a Russian botnet,” the report says.
Morgan claimed that the operation was so small that there is no way it could have affected the outcome of the election. But that flies in the face of why the operation would have been launched in the first place; if it wasn’t designed to affect the outcome, how can anyone know whether or not it was successful?
As we reported:
Recall that despite the allegations against Moore, which clearly hurt him, Jones still only won by about 21,000 votes; 49.9 to 48.4 percent.
Despite claims to the contrary, with a margin so slim, we don’t really know if this “Russian-style” camp did or didn’t have an influence on the election large enough to tip the scales, because there isn’t any way to know that. Simply saying “it’s not possible” isn’t credible.
What we do know is that the operation took place; Jones won the race; and Morgan’s firm used the Post’s stories to generate opposition among Republicans whom they believed may have been reluctant to support Moore because they were uncomfortable with the allegations against him. And we know that this is what Russia was doing during the 2016 election.
The bottom line is this: No one can honestly say it is outside the realm of possibility that Jones won his election thanks to this “experiment.”
That may change now, however, depending on what the Alabama AG decides to do. — Jon Dougherty
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