A group of tech experts working as Democratic operatives were paid $100,000 to orchestrate an elaborate "false flag" disinformation campaign during the hotly contested 2017 special election between Roy Moore and Democratic Sen. Doug Jones.
The group, funded by liberal billionaire Reid Hoffman, created over 1,000 Russian-language Twitter accounts that followed Roy Moore overnight in order to link the embattled Republican candidate to Russian influence campaigns, according to a Wednesday report in the New York Times.
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
"We orchestrated an elaborate ‘false flag’ operation that planted the idea that the Moore campaign was amplified on social media by a Russian botnet," reads an internal report on the Alabama effort obtained by the Times, which aimed to experiment "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. -New York Times
One of the participants in the scheme, Jonathan Morgan, is the CEO of cybersecurity firm New Knowledge. Morgan wrote a blistering account of Russian social media operations during the 2016 election released this week by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Another angle to this big @nytimes story... Guess who participated in using a Russian style disinformation campaign to influence the Alabama Senate election AND hoped to frame Russia for it? The CEO of the company that wrote the Senate Intel report on 2016 election meddling. https://t.co/uSu8HYCl15— Robby Starbuck (@robbystarbuck) December 20, 2018
Morgan denied knowledge of the Russian ruse in a recent interview, saying it "does not ring a bell," and that the project only sought to "enrage and energize Democrats" and "depress" Republican turnout by emphasizing accusations that Moore had pursued teenage girls when he was a young prosecutor in his 30s.
"The research project was intended to help us understand how these kind of campaigns operated," said Morgan. "We thought it was useful to work in the context of a real election but design it to have almost no impact."
We're not so sure it had "almost no impact." As the Daily Caller's Peter Hassan notes:
Media outlets — both in Alabama and nationally — fell for the ploy and amplified the false narrative in October 2017.
The Montgomery Advertiser, an Alabama affiliate of USA Today, was the first to run with the story. Brian Lyman, the reporter on that story, did not immediately return The Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment. National media outlets quickly seized upon Lyman’s story.
“Roy Moore flooded with fake Russian Twitter followers,” read the headline on a New York Post story, which cited the Advertiser.
Left-wing publication Mother Jones cited the same report in a story titled, “Russian Propagandists Are Pushing for Roy Moore to Win.” That report didn’t rely exclusively on the fake Twitter followers, citing Russian media’s favorable coverage of Moore.
Democrats involved in the scheme have likened it to fighting fire with fire.
"I know there were people who believed the Democrats needed to fight fire with fire," said Renée DiResta, who would later join New Knowledge and was lead author of the report on Russian social media operations released this week, according to the Times. "It was absolutely chatter going around the party."