The “elaborate ‘false flag’ operation” sought to “enrage and energize Democrats” and “depress turnout” among Republicans
The Democrats have been wailing about the Russian influence on the 2016 election, but it turns out, as Mary blogged earlier this week, that they are implicated in creating their own army of fake Russian bots to influence the 2017 Alabama Special Election.
According to reports, Democrats spent the same amount of money on fake Russian bots intended to spread disinformation and fake news as the Russians spent on real Russian bots.
While the debate rages on over how much Russia really influenced the results of the 2016 presidential elections, one detail put the entire controversy in perspective: Democratic operatives spent an identical amount of money on their project to create a Russian bot “false flag” campaign during the Alabama 2017 special election.
Multiple reports detailed the Russian government-backed Internet Research Agency spent up to $100,000 on Facebook advertisements throughout their entire disinformation operation. As The Daily Caller News Foundation reported Wednesday, billionaire-backed Democrats “created more than a thousand Russian-language accounts that followed [Roy] Moore’s Twitter account overnight.”
The group of Democrats behind the “elaborate ‘false flag’ operation,” as described in an internal report obtained by The New York Times, also created fake conservative Facebook accounts for the purpose of convincing voters not to support Republican candidate Roy Moore.
The cost of the effort totaled $100,000 — the identical amount Facebook says the Russian IRA spent during the last presidential election.
The New York Times has more details about the Democrats’ false-flag operation.
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 NYT describes the connections between power brokers in the “world of political technology” who were “brought together” by this allegedly small, relatively inexpensive effort.
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.
The NYT’s description of the false-flag fake Russian bot operation reportedly includes a Facebook page and a number of sketchy-sounding characters who refused meetings and “stayed in the shadows.”
The NYT continues:
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.
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