A secret project by a group of Democratic tech experts sought to try out a “false flag operation” in 2017 mimicking Russia’s deceptive tactics.
According to a new report in The New York Times on Wednesday, the head of the cyber security firm which wrote a report for the Senate on Russian disinformation in the 2016 election also engaged in similar strategies to affect the hotly contested Alabama race between Republican Roy Moore and the eventual winner, Democrat Sen. Doug Jones.
The Alabama project “experimented with many of the tactics now understood to have influenced the 2016 elections,” according to an internal report obtained by The New York Times.
Jonathon Morgan, chief executive of the research firm New Knowledge, participated in the effort which included setting up a Facebook page made up of supposedly conservative voters in Alabama who did not support Moore. The group attempted to divide Republican voters, working along with an effort on Twitter which attempted to link Moore to more than a thousand Russian-language Twitter accounts that popped up and followed the GOP candidate’s account.
“We orchestrated an elaborate ‘false flag’ operation that planted the idea that the Moore campaign was amplified on social media by a Russian botnet,” Democratic operatives revealed in the report.
Democrats hate what Russia did in the 2016 election so much that they tried to replicate it in a statewide race the very next year. From NYT: 'Secret Experiment in Alabama Senate Race Imitated Russian Tactics.' https://t.co/rcYuelspMS pic.twitter.com/b75mj4ry8V
— Byron York (@ByronYork) December 20, 2018
The project was funded by liberal billionaire Reid Hoffman who gave the operatives $100,000 to undertake the experiment in a race that Federal Election Commission records revealed cost approximately $51 million, The Times reported.
Morgan claimed the tactics used were not intended to affect the outcome of the race which eventually saw Democrat Doug Jones beat out Moore in the deep-red state.
“The research project was intended to help us understand how these kind of campaigns operated,” Morgan said. “We thought it was useful to work in the context of a real election but design it to have almost no impact.”
But news outlets around the nation fell for the ruse during the race, helping spread the narrative in multiple reports as Moore blamed Democratic operatives for the stunt, for which he was widely criticized and mocked.
Roy Moore just picked up a whole bunch of twitter followers. But they ain’t from around here, comrade. pic.twitter.com/vJBPVxqWIW
— The Ostrich (@ALostrich) October 16, 2017
Roy Moore’s campaign suggests that “Doug Jones and Democrat operatives” are behind the surge of Russian bot followers pic.twitter.com/ZOOY9ZDVnd
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) October 16, 2017
The project was reportedly conducted without the approval or even the knowledge of the Jones campaign and came at a time when the Russians’ weaponizing of social media in the 2016 presidential election was coming to light. And while many claim the $100,000 operation had very little impact on the Alabama race, they agree that a concerning precedent may be set.
“Some will do whatever it takes to win,” GOP consultant Dan Bayens told The Times. “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.”
“I think the big danger is somebody in this cycle uses the dark arts of bots and social networks and it works,” Joe Trippi, a top adviser to the Jones campaign, said. “Then we’re in real trouble.”
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