Will these tactics become a permanent part of future elections?
The New York Times dropped a bombshell on Wednesday about how Democratic tech experts adopted Russian tactics supposedly used in the 2016 election in order to help Democrat Doug Jones defeat Republican Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race in 2017:
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 insisted that the project was meant “to explore how certain online tactics worked, not to affect the election.” I doubt it would have worked due to Moore’s past of pursuing underage girls for hookups.
The measly budget of $100,000 probably didn’t help things considering the senate race cost $51 million, which includes the primaries.
Even Moore’s campaign had suspicions about 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.”
The Daily Beast in December 2017 published a piece titled, “Shadowy Facebook Ads That Pushed Trump Are Back in Alabama.” The New York Post noted in October 2017 that Moore’s Twitter account received over 20,000 followers from Russian bots.
The NYT said the report did not mention anything about the project purchasing those Russian bots on Twitter. However, when I Googled “Roy Moore Russia” I came across an article from December 2017 in Mother Jones that mentioned Hamilton 68 dashboard (operated by the nonpartisan Alliance for Securing Democracy) tracked the hashtag #alabamasenaterace along with “600 Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence operations.”
Analyst Bret Shafer stated that those “600 accounts push out 20,000 to 25,000 tweets every day.” By Election Day, those accounts tweeted out votejudgemoore.com the most.
Guess who belonged to that Hamilton 68 dashboard group? Jonathon Morgan.
The report obtained by the NYT mentioned “a generic page to draw conservative Alabamians” on Facebook funded by the project contacted by Mac Watson, a write-in candidate for the election. Watson said the page agreed to “boost” his campaign and kept in touch with him. This page helped Watson get interviews with major publications.
Watson admitted that the page “operators seemed determined to stay in the shadows.” The NYT continued:
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.
That page disappeared right after the election.
But even though it may not have swayed the election, it has people on edge because it shows that those Russian tactics everyone hated in 2016 may become a reality in future elections:
“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 advisor 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.”
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