Dis­in­for­ma­tion on­line isn’t just for Rus­sia any­more

Ledger-Enquirer - - Opinion -

With the con­spic­u­ous ex­cep­tion of Pres­i­dent Trump and some of his sup­port­ers, Amer­i­cans were ap­palled when it was re­vealed that Rus­sian “troll farms” had launched a dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign on so­cial me­dia de­signed to in­flu­ence the 2016 elec­tion. But on­line de­cep­tion about elec­tions is de­testable even when it orig­i­nates in­side this coun­try, as it ap­par­ently did in a 2017 spe­cial elec­tion for a U.S. Sen­ate seat from Alabama.

The New York Times re­ported Mon­day that pro­gres­sive Democrats op­posed to Roy Moore, the odi­ous Repub­li­can can­di­date in that race, cre­ated a Face­book page and Twit­ter feed pur­port­ing to rep­re­sent Moore sup­port­ers op­posed to the sale of al­co­holic bev­er­ages. The con­vo­luted strat­egy be­hind the “Dry Alabama” cam­paign was to as­so­ciate Moore with calls for a statewide ban on the sale of liquor in or­der to alien­ate mod­er­ate, probusi­ness Repub­li­cans and help Demo­cratic can­di­date Doug Jones. (Jones, who says he had no idea that the de­cep­tion was un­der­way on his be­half, was nar­rowly elected.)

“Dry Alabama” was ac­tu­ally the sec­ond case of Rus­sian-style dis­in­for­ma­tion in the Alabama cam­paign un­cov­ered by the New York Times. In De­cem­ber it re­ported on an “ex­per­i­ment” in which a phony Face­book page was cre­ated to try to drain sup­port for Moore from con­ser­va­tives and a “false flag” op­er­a­tion was cre­ated to sug­gest that the Repub­li­can can­di­date was be­ing fol­lowed on Twit­ter by Rus­sian bots.

Iron­i­cally, one of the par­tic­i­pants in that project was Jonathon Morgan, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of New Knowl­edge, a cy­ber se­cu­rity firm that com­piled a re­port on Rus­sian dis­in­for­ma­tion for the Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee. Morgan said that his in­ten­tion was to un­der­stand the me­chan­ics of dis­in­for­ma­tion tac­tics, not to af­fect the out­come of the elec­tion. But the New York Times quoted an in­ter­nal re­port say­ing that the project sought to “en­rage and en­er­gize Democrats.”

The ar­chi­tects of “Dry Alabama” made no apol­ogy for try­ing to in­flu­ence the elec­tion. Matt Os­borne, a pro­gres­sive ac­tivist who worked on the project, told the New York Times that while he hoped that de­cep­tive tac­tics would some­day be banned from Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, in the mean­time Democrats “can­not uni­lat­er­ally give it up.”

That’s lu­di­crous. Mis­lead­ing vot­ers is not just an­other cam­paign tac­tic. It’s a cor­rup­tion of democ­racy.

Jones, the sup­posed ben­e­fi­ciary of these ef­forts, sees things more clearly. Af­ter the first re­port of on­line dis­in­for­ma­tion, the se­na­tor said that he was out­raged. He has called for in­ves­ti­ga­tions by the Fed­eral Elec­tion Com­mis­sion and the Jus­tice De­part­ment to see whether any laws were vi­o­lated.

Even if they weren’t, this sort of de­cep­tion is en­tirely un­ac­cept­able, whether prac­ticed by Repub­li­cans, Democrats or Rus­sians. Can­di­dates should fol­low Jones’ lead in dis­avow­ing it.

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