Secret Experiment by Democrats in Alabama Senate Race Imitated Russian Tactics
Secret Experiment in Alabama Senate Race Imitated Russian Tactics
By Scott Shane and Alan Blinder Dec. 19, 2018
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.
Mr. Morgan said in an interview that the Russian botnet ruse “does not ring a bell,” adding that others had worked on the effort and had written the report. He said he saw the project as “a small experiment” designed to explore how certain online tactics worked, not to affect the election.
Mr. Morgan said he could not account for the claims in the report that the project sought to “enrage and energize Democrats” and “depress turnout” among Republicans, partly by emphasizing accusations that Mr. Moore had pursued teenage girls when he was a prosecutor in his 30s.
“The research project was intended to help us understand how these kind of campaigns operated,” said Mr. Morgan. “We thought it was useful to work in the context of a real election but design it to have almost no impact.”
The project had a budget of just $100,000, in a race that cost approximately $51 million, including the primaries, according to Federal Election Commission records.
But however modest, the influence effort in Alabama may be a sign of things to come. Campaign veterans in both parties fear the Russian example may set off a race to the bottom, in which candidates choose social media manipulation because they fear their opponents will.
“Some will do whatever it takes to win,” said Dan Bayens, a Kentucky-based Republican consultant. “You’ve got Russia, which showed folks how to do it, you’ve got consultants willing to engage in this type of behavior and political leaders who apparently find it futile to stop it.”
There is no evidence that Mr. Jones sanctioned or was even aware of the social media project. Joe Trippi, a seasoned Democratic operative who served as a top adviser to the Jones campaign, said he had noticed the Russian bot swarm suddenly following Mr. Moore on Twitter. But he said it was impossible that a $100,000 operation had an impact on the race.
Mr. Trippi said he was nonetheless disturbed by the stealth operation. “I think the big danger is somebody in this cycle uses the dark arts of bots and social networks and it works,” he said. “Then we’re in real trouble.”
Despite its small size, the Alabama project brought together some prominent names in the world of political technology. The funding came from Reid Hoffman, the billionaire co-founder of LinkedIn, who has sought to help Democrats catch up with Republicans in their use of online technology.
The money passed through American Engagement Technologies, run by Mikey Dickerson, the founding director of the United States Digital Service, which was created during the Obama administration to try to upgrade the federal government’s use of technology. Sara K. Hudson, a former Justice Department fellow now with Investing in Us, a tech finance company partly funded by Mr. Hoffman, worked on the project, along with Mr. Morgan.
A close collaborator of Mr. Hoffman, Dmitri Mehlhorn, the founder of Investing in Us, said in a statement that “our purpose in investing in politics and civic engagement is to strengthen American democracy” and that while they do not “micromanage” the projects they fund, they are not aware of having financed projects that have used deception. Mr. Dickerson declined to comment and Ms. Hudson did not respond to queries.
The Alabama project got started as Democrats were coming to grips with the Russians’ weaponizing of social media to undermine the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton and promote Donald J. Trump.
Mr. Morgan reached out at the time to Renée DiResta, who would later join New Knowledge and was lead author of the report on Russian social media operations released this week.
“I know there were people who believed the Democrats needed to fight fire with fire,” Ms. DiResta said, adding that she disagreed. “It was absolutely chatter going around the party.”
But she said Mr. Morgan simply asked her for suggestions of online tactics worth testing. “My understanding was that they were going to investigate to what extent they could grow audiences for Facebook pages using sensational news,” she said.
Mr. Morgan confirmed that the project created a generic page to draw conservative Alabamians — he said he couldn’t remember its name — and that Mac Watson, one of multiple write-in candidates, contacted the page. “But we didn’t do anything on his behalf,” he said.
The report, however, says the Facebook page agreed to “boost” Mr. Watson’s campaign and stayed in regular touch with him, and was “treated as an advisor and the go-to media contact for the write-in candidate.’’ The report claims the page got him interviews with The Montgomery Advertiser and The Washington Post.
Mr. Watson, who runs a patio supply company in Auburn, Ala., confirmed that he got some assistance from a Facebook page whose operators seemed determined to stay in the shadows.
Of dozens of conservative Alabamian-oriented pages on Facebook that he wrote to, only one replied. “You are in a particularly interesting position and from what we have read of your politics, we would be inclined to endorse you,” the unnamed operator of the page wrote. After Mr. Watson answered a single question about abortion rights as a sort of test, the page offered an endorsement, though no money.
“They never spent one red dime as far as I know on anything I did — they just kind of told their 400 followers, ‘Hey, vote for this guy,’” Mr. Watson said.
Mr. Watson never spoke with the page’s author or authors by phone, and they declined a request for meeting. But he did notice something unusual: his Twitter followers suddenly ballooned from about 100 to about 10,000. The Facebook page’s operators asked Mr. Watson whether he trusted anyone to set up a super PAC that could receive funding and offered advice on how to sharpen his appeal to disenchanted Republican voters.
Shortly before the election, the page sent him a message, wishing him luck.
The report does not say whether the project purchased the Russian bot Twitter accounts that suddenly began to follow Mr. Moore. But it takes credit for “radicalizing Democrats with a Russian bot scandal” and points to stories on the phenomenon in the mainstream media. “Roy Moore flooded with fake Russian Twitter followers,” reported The New York Post.
Inside the Moore campaign, officials began to worry about online interference.
“We did have suspicions that something odd was going on,” said Rich Hobson, Mr. Moore’s campaign manager. Mr. Hobson said that although he did not recall any hard evidence of interference, the campaign complained to Facebook about potential chicanery.
“Any and all of these things could make a difference,” Mr. Hobson said. “It’s definitely frustrating, and we still kick ourselves that Judge Moore didn’t win.”
When Election Day came, Mr. Jones became the first Alabama Democrat elected to the Senate in a quarter of a century, defeating Mr. Moore by 21,924 votes in a race that drew more than 22,800 write-in votes. More than 1.3 million ballots were cast over all.
Many of the write-in votes went to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Condoleezza Rice — an Alabama native and former secretary of state — certain popular football coaches and Jesus Christ. Mr. Watson drew just a few hundred votes.
Mr. Watson noticed one other oddity. The day after the vote, the Facebook page that had taken such an interest in him had vanished.
“It was a group that, like, honest to God, next day was gone,” said Mr. Watson.
“It was weird,” he said. “The whole thing was weird.”
Jonathan Martin and Rachel Shorey contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in print on Dec. 19, 2018, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Russia’s Tricks, Minus Russia, In Senate Race.