Rus­sian-in­spired tac­tics were used in Alabama Se­nate race, re­port says

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - NATION & WORLD - By Craig Tim­berg, Tony Romm, Aaron C. Davis and El­iz­a­beth Dwoskin

A se­cret ef­fort to in­flu­ence the 2017 Se­nate elec­tion in Alabama used tac­tics in­spired by Rus­sian dis­in­for­ma­tion teams, in­clud­ing the cre­ation of fake ac­counts to de­liver mis­lead­ing mes­sages on Face­book to hun­dreds of thou­sands of vot­ers to help elect Demo­crat Doug Jones in the deeply red state, ac­cord­ing to a doc­u­ment ob­tained by The Wash­ing­ton Post.

But un­like the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign when Rus­sians worked to help elect Don­ald Trump, the peo­ple be­hind the Alabama ef­fort — dubbed Pro­ject Birm­ing­ham — were Amer­i­cans. Now Demo­cratic op­er­a­tives and a re­search firm known to have had roles in the pro­ject are dis­tanc­ing them­selves from its most con­tro­ver­sial tac­tics.

Jones’ nar­row up­set of Repub­li­can Roy Moore in all like­li­hood re­sulted from other fac­tors, po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts say. Moore spent much of the spe­cial-elec­tion cam­paign bat­tling re­ports in The Post that he had decades ear­lier made unwanted sex­ual ad­vances to­ward teenage girls.

Re­cent rev­e­la­tions about Pro­ject Birm­ing­ham, how­ever, have shocked Democrats in Alabama and Wash­ing­ton. And news of the ef­fort has un­der­scored the warn­ings of dis­in­for­ma­tion ex­perts who long have said that threats to hon­est, trans­par­ent po­lit­i­cal dis­course in the age of so­cial me­dia are as likely to be do­mes­tic as for­eign.

As the scan­dal has ex­panded, with calls for fed­eral and state in­ves­ti­ga­tions and Face­book also con­duct­ing a re­view, the tac­tics de­scribed in the Pro­ject Birm­ing­ham doc­u­ment have come un­der in­tense scru­tiny. Those in­cluded a “false flag” ef­fort that gen­er­ated phony ev­i­dence that au­to­mated Rus­sian ac­counts called bots had sup­ported Moore on Twit­ter and the cre­ation of a mis­lead­ing Face­book page, aimed at Alabama con­ser­va­tives, that sought to un­der­mine Moore by en­cour­ag­ing them to vote for a ri­val Repub­li­can through a write-in cam­paign.

But all those who ac­knowl­edged play­ing a role in Pro­ject Birm­ing­ham have de­nied know­ing the full ex­tent of the ac­tiv­i­ties de­scribed in the doc­u­ment.

Pro­ject Birm­ing­ham got its fund­ing from in­ter­net bil­lion­aire Reid Hoff­man, who emerged as a lead­ing un­der­writer of Demo­cratic causes af­ter the 2016 elec­tion. While ac­knowl­edg­ing his money ended up pay­ing for Pro­ject Birm­ing­ham, Hoff­man said he did not know how his funds were used un­til de­tails be­gan to emerge in the New York Times and The Post.

Hoff­man gave $750,000 to a pro­gres­sive tech­nol­ogy start-up called Amer­i­can En­gage­ment Tech­nolo­gies — founded by Mikey Dick­er­son, a for­mer Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial — that aimed to help Democrats, ac­cord­ing to a per­son fa­mil­iar with the fi­nances who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity. This per­son said Dick­er­son used $100,000 of that to hire New Knowl­edge, a Texas-based so­cial me­dia re­search firm, to work in Alabama in sup­port of Jones dur­ing the spe­cial elec­tion in De­cem­ber 2017.

Dick­er­son, who is best known for lead­ing the ef­fort to fix Health­Care.gov — the glitchy por­tal for Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s sig­na­ture health-care ini­tia­tive — said in a state­ment to The Post that he learned of the ex­tent of Pro­ject Birm­ing­ham only months af­ter it was com­plete, when he re­ceived a re­port on the op­er­a­tion.

That re­port, he said, came from New Knowl­edge, a com­pany known mainly for its ef­forts to in­ves­ti­gate on­line dis­in­for­ma­tion. More re­cently, it co-au­thored a re­port last month on Rus­sian dis­in­for­ma­tion for the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee.

Jonathon Morgan, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of New Knowl­edge, has de­nied knowl­edge of most of the ac­tiv­i­ties de­scribed in the Pro­ject Birm­ing­ham doc­u­ment and dis­puted Dick­er­son’s claim that New Knowl­edge au­thored it.

What is known about Pro­ject Birm­ing­ham comes mainly from the 12-page doc­u­ment la­beled “Pro­ject Birm­ing­ham De­brief,” which was ob­tained by The Post. It is dated Dec. 15, 2017, three days af­ter the Alabama vote.

The doc­u­ment de­scribes the ef­fort as “a dig­i­tal mes­sag­ing op­er­a­tion to in­flu­ence the out­come of the AL se­nate race” by tar­get­ing 650,000 likely vot­ers with mes­sages on so­cial me­dia plat­forms such as Face­book, while ob­scur­ing the fact that the mes­sages were com­ing from an ef­fort back­ing Jones. Jones has said he had no knowl­edge of Pro­ject Birm­ing­ham and has called for a fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The goal of the ef­fort was to “rad­i­cal­ize Democrats, sup­press un­per­suad­able Repub­li­cans (“hard Rs”) and fac­tion mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans by ad­vo­cat­ing for write-in can­di­dates,” the doc­u­ment states.

The doc­u­ment also makes bold but un­ver­i­fied claims about the ef­fects of the op­er­a­tion, say­ing that it pro­vided the de­ci­sive mar­gin in an elec­tion de­cided by fewer than 22,000 vot­ers — mov­ing “enough votes to en­sure a Doug Jones victory.”

Po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts ex­pressed skep­ti­cism that any of these tac­tics af­fected the elec­tion.

“My ini­tial gut says that the al­leged dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign I’ve read about would not have been enough to af­fect this race. Roy Moore is so well known in Alabama that peo­ple had very set­tled opin­ions about whether they wanted them as their se­na­tor be­fore the race even started,” said Univer­sity of Alabama po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Joseph L. Smith.

Last Septem­ber, Dick­er­son pre­sented what he said was a trun­cated ver­sion of the Pro­ject Birm­ing­ham de­brief at a meet­ing of tech­nol­ogy ex­perts in Wash­ing­ton. The 13 at­ten­dees were re­quired to sign nondis­clo­sure agree­ments.

In the ver­sion of the doc­u­ment dis­trib­uted at the meet­ing, a black rec­tan­gle ob­scured part of a sen­tence that would have made clear the name of the en­tity that con­ducted Pro­ject Birm­ing­ham. Af­ter weeks of de­clin­ing to com­ment, Dick­er­son told The Post that the redac­tion was “NK” — for New Knowl­edge.

“Prior to pre­sent­ing the re­port in Septem­ber, I edited New Knowl­edge’s re­port for length and to redact iden­ti­fy­ing in­for­ma­tion,” Dick­er­son wrote in his state­ment to The Post. “This was the only first­hand ac­count of this kind of op­er­a­tion that I knew of, so I pre­sented it to the group to an­a­lyze and dis­cuss.”

Dick­er­son de­clined to an­swer nu­mer­ous other ques­tions about the cam­paign, in­clud­ing what he knew of Hoff­man’s role.

Be­fore Dick­er­son had sent his state­ment to The Post, Morgan, the New Knowl­edge chief, had pub­licly de­nied writ­ing the Pro­ject Birm­ing­ham re­port or know­ing about most of what it de­scribes.

Morgan, in com­ments to The Post and in a blog post on the self-pub­lish­ing site Medium, ac­knowl­edged con­duct­ing some “ex­per­i­ments” with dis­in­for­ma­tion tac­tics dur­ing the Alabama elec­tion. Those in­cluded cre­at­ing a Face­book page called “Alabama Con­ser­va­tive Pol­i­tics” that shared news links with its fol­low­ers. He also said that New Knowl­edge spent about $30,000 on tar­geted Face­book ad­ver­tis­ing dur­ing the Alabama elec­tion sea­son and that he bought some retweets to test his abil­ity to “lift” so­cial me­dia mes­sages.

Morgan char­ac­ter­ized the work as a “small, lim­ited re­search pro­ject on Face­book” while spec­u­lat­ing that Pro­ject Birm­ing­ham as de­scribed in the de­brief doc­u­ment was a com­bi­na­tion of his ef­forts and those that might have been con­ducted by oth­ers. He de­scribed the Pro­ject Birm­ing­ham doc­u­ment as “AET’s re­port” — sug­gest­ing it had been a prod­uct of Dick­er­son’s start-up, Amer­i­can En­gage­ment Tech­nolo­gies.

“I ac­knowl­edge work­ing with AET, but I don’t rec­og­nize the claims they’re mak­ing now,” Morgan said on Medium. “We did not write the leaked re­port and we could not have be­cause it didn’t re­flect our re­search. The leaked ver­sion of the re­port made a num­ber of claims that did not orig­i­nate with us.”

Hoff­man also has de­nied know­ing about the op­er­a­tion in Alabama, though he has ac­knowl­edged pro­vid­ing the money to AET and apol­o­gized for his role in how it was even­tu­ally used.

“I find the tac­tics that have been re­cently re­ported highly dis­turb­ing,” Hoff­man said in a state­ment. “For that rea­son, I am em­bar­rassed by my fail­ure to track AET — the or­ga­ni­za­tion I did sup­port — more dili­gently as it made its own de­ci­sions to per­haps fund projects that I would re­ject.”

Hoff­man’s fi­nan­cial re­la­tion­ship with AET was bro­kered by his po­lit­i­cal ad­viser, Dmitri Mehlhorn, who heads a group called In­vest­ing in US that helps di­rect Sil­i­con Val­ley money into left-leaning po­lit­i­cal causes.

Mehlhorn said he was un­aware of key de­tails about Pro­ject Birm­ing­ham, but de­fended the idea of learn­ing from the Rus­sian dis­in­for­ma­tion op­er­a­tives at the In­ter­net Re­search Agency, who backed Trump in the 2016 elec­tion and in his first year in the White House, ac­cord­ing to U.S. of­fi­cials.

“The In­ter­net Re­search Agency en­gaged in many, many tac­tics, some of which I think it is ap­pro­pri­ate for us to mirror and some of which I think we should dis­avow. The tac­tics they en­gaged in (that) we need to dis­avow (in­clude) mis­in­for­ma­tion and pro­mot­ing racial ha­tred,” Mehlhorn said. “The tac­tics we need to mirror are re­ally good so­cial mi­cro­tar­get­ing.”

Pro­ject Birm­ing­ham had its roots in anger and frus­tra­tion Democrats felt af­ter los­ing the White House and Congress in 2016 — with the as­sis­tance, many were con­vinced, of on­line dis­in­for­ma­tion ped­dled by Rus­sians and U.S. con­ser­va­tives on so­cial me­dia, who pushed dam­ag­ing but false in­for­ma­tion about Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton’s health, hon­esty and suit­abil­ity for of­fice.

One per­son who ex­pressed a de­sire to fight back was Dick­er­son, ac­cord­ing to so­cial me­dia re­searcher Re­nee DiResta, who met him in Jan­uary 2017 at a con­fer­ence in Chicago. . Dick­er­son told her at the time about his de­sire to cre­ate a start-up to bat­tle po­lit­i­cal dis­in­for­ma­tion, she said.

“There was a feel­ing af­ter the Trump elec­tion that Democrats hadn’t pri­or­i­tized tech, that Repub­li­cans had built this amaz­ing jug­ger­naut ma­chine,” said DiResta. “The right wing was run­ning a meme war, and there were these crazy dirty tricks. Peo­ple wanted to build coun­ter­mea­sures.”

DiResta briefly ad­vised AET, of­fer­ing tech­ni­cal guid­ance and help­ing them meet po­ten­tial sup­port­ers in the months be­fore Hoff­man agreed to fund the com­pany.

DiResta, who also ac­cepted a sin­gle share in AET and a seat on its board, said she be­came con­cerned with the opaque­ness of the pro­ject and sev­ered ties with the com­pany a few months af­ter join­ing.

She be­came re­search di­rec­tor at New Knowl­edge in Jan­uary 2018 but said that, while she had heard of an ex­per­i­ment in Alabama, she did not know about the tac­tics.

As de­bate con­tin­ues over who did what in Pro­ject Birm­ing­ham, The Post was able to find ev­i­dence for sev­eral claims in the ex­plana­tory doc­u­ment.

The doc­u­ment, for ex­am­ple, says it “planted the idea that the Moore cam­paign was am­pli­fied on so­cial me­dia by a Rus­sian bot­net. We then tied that bot­net to the Moore cam­paign dig­i­tal di­rec­tor, mak­ing it ap­pear as if he had pur­chased the ac­counts.” Morgan de­nied any knowl­edge of the in­ci­dent in­volv­ing Rus­sian bots.

Dur­ing the cam­paign, jour­nal­ists wrote about Twit­ter ac­counts that ap­peared to be Rus­sian fol­low­ers of Moore.

Those ac­counts were later sus­pended by Twit­ter. The Post found an archived ver­sion of a mis­lead­ing tweet and also sev­eral news re­ports and tweets by jour­nal­ists dur­ing the elec­tion de­scrib­ing ev­i­dence that Rus­sian bots were sup­port­ing Moore.

BRYNN ANDERSON/AP

A new doc­u­ment shows that an ef­fort to in­flu­ence the 2017 Se­nate elec­tion in Alabama was in­spired by Rus­sian dis­in­for­ma­tion teams. Repub­li­can Roy Moore nar­rowly lost.

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