Former Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore responded to reports that Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall was looking into media reports that a group used potentially illegal social media tactics to influence the 2017 special election, in which former Democratic candidate Doug Jones defeated Moore to win the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions.
Marshall told reporters with the Washington Post that the disinformation campaign targeting Roy Moore’s Senate bid may have violated law. The news of the influence campaign was first reported by the New York Times earlier this month.
“It’s about time that state and federal authorities, as well as the general public, are becoming aware of the false and deceptive tactics used by the Democrat party and political operatives to influence the Alabama Senate election in 2017,” former Chief Justice Moore said in a statement. “It is curious that my former opponent Doug Jones, “Now” pretends to be ‘Outraged’ and calls for an investigation after the election, and Facebook suspends 5 accounts for ‘bad behavior.’”
Marshall told the reporters that he was worried that the operation could have affected the closely fought Senate race.
“The information is concerning,” Marshall said. “The impact it had on the election is something that’s significant for us to explore, and we’ll go from there.”
Marshall said that he first learned of the disinformation campaign called Project Birmingham through news reports over the past two weeks and that his office was beginning to gather information about the effort.
On Wednesday, internet billionaire Reid Hoffman apologized for donating $750,000 to the group, American Engagement Technologies, which is tied to the effort to discredit Moore and bolster Jones. Hoffman said on Wednesday that he did not know that the money was used for an illicit disinformation campaign.
According to the Times’ reporting, Democratic operatives created a fake website based on strategies first developed by Russian operatives, allegedly with ties to the Russian intelligence service, in the 2016 election to help elect Donald Trump.
A group of elite Democratic tech experts set up a fake conservative website that encouraged write-in votes instead of votes for Republican nominee Roy Moore. It also highlighted thousands of Russian-based bots beginning to follow the Moore social media pages.
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 Times, says explicitly that the firm “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 encourage write-in votes to draw votes from GOP nominee Roy Moore.
“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 said in an interview that he saw the project as “a small experiment” designed to explore how certain online tactics worked, not to affect the election.
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 Moore had pursued teenage girls when he was a 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.”
The Times report that the project had a budget of $100,000. The project was so successful that some Republican groups, most notably the Alabama Young Republicans, withdrew their support for Moore during the election.
There is no evidence at this point that Jones sanctioned or was even aware of the social media project.
Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic operative who served as a top adviser to the Jones campaign, told reporters that he had noticed the Russian bot swarm suddenly following Moore on Twitter. But he said it was impossible that a $100,000 operation had an impact on the race.
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.”
“We did have suspicions that something odd was going on,” said Moore’s campaign manager Rich Hobson and that they complained to Facebook. “Any and all of these things could make a difference,” Hobson said. “It’s definitely frustrating, and we still kick ourselves that Judge Moore didn’t win.”
“I can tell you very simply, hell, I’m as outraged as everybody else about it,” Jones said. “I have railed about Russian interference in our election process ever since I started campaigning and during this first year in the Senate, and I think we’ve all kind of focused too much on just the Russians and not picked up on the fact that, you know what, some nefarious groups, whether they’re right or left, could take those same playbooks and start interfering with the elections for their own damn benefit. And I gotta tell you, I’m not happy about it.”
Jones said his team had “no idea” about any of the social media antics being played during the election.
“I will tell you this: I think the FEC and the Department of Justice should take a close look at this to determine whether or not any criminal laws were violated, and if so, prosecute them,” Jones added. “We have to kind of nip this in the bud. We should not encourage or allow to happen any group, regardless of who they are or maybe even well-intentioned, to do the kind of things that illegally interfere with the election process. That is my position. I feel very strong about it.”
The narrow election was the first time in a quarter century that Alabama sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate.
Moore said, “This problem must be addressed before the 2020 election if we are to preserve our Country. May God be with us!”