Social media campaigns supporting Democrat Doug Jones in the 2017 Alabama Senate race employed tactics borrowed from Russian interference in U.S. elections, according to multiple reports published in recent weeks.
Who exactly led the efforts remains unclear, but the funding sources trace back to a mix of progressive activists and tech billionaires.
What Happened In The Election
Jones beat out Republican candidate Roy Moore by fewer than 22,000 votes in Alabama’s 2017 special election for the Senate seat vacated by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Moore, a former judge elected multiple times to Alabama’s Supreme Court, faced allegations leading up to the election that he had solicited sexual relationships with teenagers when he was in his 30s.
Jones defeated Moore. He was the first Democrat to win a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama in 25 years.
The New York Times first reported in December on the deceptive social media campaigns by citing an internal report, prompting Facebook to remove five accounts run by Americans who the company said used its platform in an “inauthentic” manner.
The campaigns drew comparisons to Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, which included tactics ranging from creating thousands of fake social media accounts targeting certain voter demographics to creating and widely sharing divisive Facebook ads.
The Washington Post on Sunday detailed an effort dubbed Project Birmingham, which allegedly created fake social media accounts to spread misleading information to Alabama voters and encouraged them to support a rival Republican as a write-in candidate on the ballot. The project may have also created false evidence that thousands of Russian Twitter accounts had followed Moore on the platform, according to a 12-page document titled “Project Birmingham Debrief,” which was obtained by the Post.
The New York Times reported on Monday that Democratic activists set up multiple Facebook pages aimed at misleading voters using tactics inspired by Russian disinformation operatives. They included a “Dry Alabama” Facebook page that appeared to be run by Baptist supporters of Moore calling for a statewide alcohol ban.
Jones has said he had no knowledge of the Project Birmingham effort. His spokeswoman, Heather Fluit, told HuffPost on Monday that Jones first learned of the project from the Times’ reporting in December. Fluit said the senator’s legal team was finalizing a formal complaint to send to the Federal Election Commission this week.
It’s unclear who spearheaded the misinformation campaigns. Funding for at least one of the efforts traced back to Reid Hoffman, the billionaire co-founder of LinkedIn. Hoffman gave $750,000 to American Engagement Technologies, a progressive tech start-up founded by former Obama administration official Mikey Dickerson, according to the Post.
Hoffman’s political adviser, Dmitri Mehlhorn, reportedly brokered the deal with AET. Mehlhorn runs a group called Investing in Us, a tech company that finances progressive political causes.
Dickerson spent $100,000 of Hoffman’s funds to hire New Knowledge, a social media research firm, to conduct research in Alabama’s election, the Post reported, citing an anonymous source.
Dickerson claimed he was not aware of the deceptive tactics until he received a report on the project, allegedly written by New Knowledge.
But Jonathan Morgan, the chief executive of New Knowledge, denied that his firm wrote the report and said he regretted ever entering into a deal with AET.
Morgan wrote in a Jan. 2 post on Medium that he proposed a research project to AET “in a very limited test to see how liberals and conservatives responded to a variety of social media posts and memes.”
“I acknowledge working with AET, but I don’t recognize the claims they’re making now,” he wrote. “We did not write the leaked report and we could not have because it didn’t reflect our research.”
Hoffman and Mehlhorn also distanced themselves from the misinformation efforts.
“I would not have knowingly funded a project planning to use such tactics, and would have refused to invest in any organization that I knew might conduct such a project,” Hoffman wrote in a Dec. 26 post on Medium. “Nevertheless, I do have an apology to make and have learned a lesson here.”
Mehlhorn wrote in a Dec. 21 Medium post that he felt compelled to comment on “recent media reports alleging that some of our portfolio organizations may have engaged in inappropriate tactics,” which he called “beyond the pale.”
“None of the portfolio we recommended should have engaged in group disparagement or scale misinformation,” Mehlhorn wrote. “Such tactics may win a battle but lose the war, by giving up on the American ideal that we seek. We wholeheartedly renounce those tactics and would view it as a violation of our ideals if our resources were used in such ways.”
Dickerson did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment.
Facebook on Monday said it was investigating another organization backed by Hoffman, called News for Democracy, over concerns it may have violated the platform’s policies by setting up misleading news pages to spread progressive political messages ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
Political analysts told the Times and the Post that they doubted the misinformation campaigns influenced the election.
“My initial gut says that the alleged disinformation campaign I’ve read about would not have been enough to affect this race,” Joseph L. Smith, a political scientist at University of Alabama, told the Post. “Roy Moore is so well known in Alabama that people had very settled opinions about whether they wanted them as their senator before the race even started.”
But it may contribute to fears that misleading tactics might become the new norm in U.S. political campaigns in the wake of revelations about Russian election interference in the 2016 presidential election.
This story has been updated with comment from Jones’ spokeswoman, Heather Fluit, and new information from Facebook.