Earlier this week, The New York Times reported that a group of “Democratic tech experts” used Russian-style disinformation tactics during Alabama’s 2017 special election in an attempt to splinter support for Republican candidate Roy Moore. Now, The Washington Post reports that Facebook has suspended accounts used by five people involved in the project.
The Times report lays out what occurred in Alabama last year: the project’s participants started a Facebook page where they posed as conservative Alabama voters. They encouraged followers to cast write-in votes, and bought retweets on Twitter to amplify their message. According to a report seen by the Times, the project’s authors say that they “orchestrated an elaborate ‘false flag’ operation that planted the idea that the Moore campaign was amplified on social media by a Russian botnet.” The Times notes that the project was “likely too small to have a significant effect on the race,” which ultimately saw Democratic candidate Doug Jones defeat Moore.
One of the participants was the CEO of cybersecurity company New Knowledge, Jonathon Morgan. He characterized the effort as a “small experiment” intended to study how such efforts worked, rather than to influence the election. Facebook confirmed to the Post that it suspended Morgan’s account, as well as those used by four others who “engag[ed] in coordinated, inauthentic behavior.” Morgan told the Times that the “project was intended to help us understand how these kind of campaigns operated,” and that working with a live election was useful. A Twitter spokesperson said that the company doesn’t “comment on individual accounts for privacy and security reasons.”
Morgan justified the project by pointing out that the tactics utilized by foreign operatives can be easily reproduced here in the US, and called for the Federal Election Commission and the Justice Department to “look at this to see if there were any laws being violated and, if there were, prosecute those responsible.”
In a statement to the Post, Facebook pointed to its efforts to remove pages and profiles that traffic in behavior designed to impact elections, “as well as accounts that were violating our policies on spam and coordinated inauthentic behavior during the Alabama special election last year,” although the company noted that pages used by New Knowledge itself hadn’t violated its policies.
Morgan’s actions has raised eyebrows, given that his organization was one of the ones tapped by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to provide a report on Russia’s Internet Research Agency and the tactics that it used during the 2016 US Presidential Election. The tactics used in this project were similar to those reportedly used by Russia, which sought to sow divisions between Democratic voters in an effort to swing the election to then-Candidate Donald Trump.
We’ve reached out to New Knowledge for comment, and will update this post if we hear back.
Update December 22nd, 2018, 12:20PM ET: Updated with statement from Twitter.