When it comes to spreading false-flag memes to try and sway a US elections, Democrats in Alabama are giving Russia a run for their money.
In an explosive report published Monday, the New York Times published new details about a Facebook "influence campaign" financed by progressive groups that sought to deter moderate conservatives from supporting Roy Moore by spreading misleading advertisements implying that Moore supported turning Alabama into a "dry" state.
Moore, the controversial Republican candidate, ultimately lost to Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in the special election to fill a seat previously held by former AG Jeff Sessions following speculation that he tried to solicit sex from underage girls when he was a young lawyer working in the state.
The tactics employed by the groups matched those employed by the Internet Research Agency - the alleged Russian troll farm indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller - to a tee. The progressive group, which was financed by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, spent $100,000 on salaries and ads during the final weeks of the campaign. They create a fake 'conservative' group called "Dry Alabama" that implored Alabama senate candidates to pledge to support making Alabama a "dry" state.
The Facebook page and an accompanying Twitter feed appeared to be the work of pro-Moore baptist ministers.
Along with a companion Twitter feed, the Facebook page appeared to be the work of Baptist teetotalers who supported the Republican, Roy S. Moore, in the 2017 Alabama Senate race. “Pray for Roy Moore,” one tweet exhorted.
In fact, the Dry Alabama campaign, not previously reported, was the stealth creation of progressive Democrats who were out to defeat Mr. Moore — the second such secret effort to be unmasked. In a political bank shot made in the last two weeks of the campaign, they thought associating Mr. Moore with calls for a statewide alcohol ban would hurt him with moderate, business-oriented Republicans and assist the Democrat, Doug Jones, who won the special election by a hair-thin margin.
But in reality, the effort was led by progressive strategist Matt Osborne, who told the Times that Democrats have a "moral imperative" to use the same types of "dirty tricks" that have become closely associated with the Trump campaign.
Matt Osborne, a veteran progressive activist who worked on the project, said he hoped that such deceptive tactics would someday be banned from American politics. But in the meantime, he said, he believes that Republicans are using such trickery and that Democrats cannot unilaterally give it up.
"If you don’t do it, you’re fighting with one hand tied behind your back," said Mr. Osborne, a writer and consultant who lives outside Florence, Ala. "You have a moral imperative to do this — to do whatever it takes."
What's more, the operation is the second such social media "false flag" campaign uncovered in recent months. Another involved Democratic strategists creating an army of twitter bots that looked like Russian troll accounts. These bots were then assigned to follow Moore, to make it look like he was involved with Russia.
The discovery of Dry Alabama, the second so-called false flag operation by Democrats in the fiercely contested Alabama race, underscores how dirty tricks on social media are creeping into American politics. The New York Times reported last month on a separate project that used its own bogus conservative Facebook page and sent a horde of Russian-looking Twitter accounts to follow Mr. Moore’s to make it appear as if he enjoyed Russian support.
Apart from being deceptive and immoral, the Democrats' campaign violated Facebook's terms of service.
Facebook’s community standards, which were tightened in 2018, emphasize "authenticity" and prohibit "misrepresentation," including coordinated efforts to "mislead people about the origin of content."
Revelations about the first campaign led Facebook to shut down a handful of fake accounts.
The revelations about the first project, run in part by a cybersecurity company called New Knowledge, led Facebook to shut down five accounts that it said had violated its rules, and prompted Senator Jones to call for a federal investigation. There is no evidence that Mr. Jones encouraged or knew of either of the deceptive social media projects. His spokeswoman, Heather Fluit, said his legal advisers were preparing to file a formal complaint with the Federal Election Commission.
To be sure, the Times has found nothing to suggest that the candidate knew about the attacks, and when approached for questioning, he denounced them. After learning of the campaign, Jones demanded a federal investigation - though the Feds declined to start one. Still, the attacks involved a level of hypocrisy among Democrats that is simply staggering.
And now that these techniques have been found to be somewhat effective at the local level, we wonder how many similar campaigns were carried out during the midterms while the Trump Administration was busy warning about interference from China and Russia?