Photo | Lagniappe
Sen. Doug Jones last week told reporters he was “as outraged as everybody else” about a New York Times report documenting a cybersecurity researcher’s attempt to influence the 2017 special election.
Following reports of Democratic Party-affiliated groups spreading disinformation on social media during Alabama’s special Senate election last year, Sen. Doug Jones is calling for a federal inquiry.
On a conference call with the media Thursday, Jones responded to a recent article in The New York Times claiming a cybersecurity expert worked to mimic Russian election meddling efforts during the 2017 Senate race using money originating from a big-time donor to the Democratic Party.
In a statement provided to Lagniappe, Jonathan Morgan, the chief executive of cybersecurity firm New Knowledge, confirmed the report that he worked as an independent researcher to study the “tactics and effects of social media disinformation” using the 2017 election as a backdrop.
According to The New York Times, which obtained an internal report from what was dubbed the “Alabama Experiment,” Morgan and other researchers employed “tactics now understood to have influenced the 2016 [presidential] elections” during the height of the heated Senate race.
According to the same report, the group used social media pages and posts in an attempt to “enrage and energize Democrats” and “depress turnout” among Republican voters.
It also described orchestrating “an elaborate false flag” operation by planting “the idea that the Moore campaign was amplified on social media by a Russian botnet” — an accusation that eventually made its way into several national news stories.
At the time, Moore called stories about the influx of bots a “political stunt on Twitter.”
The Times also reported the research involved multiple organizations, but was ultimately funded with $100,000 provided by billionaire and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, who has donated to Democratic campaigns and initiatives across the U.S. in recent years.
Mac Watson, one of many write-in candidates who entered the race, told The Times he’d had conversations on a since-deleted Facebook page that researchers created to to draw the attention of conservative Alabamians.
According to The Times, that page also agreed to “boost” Watson’s independent campaign and claimed to be responsible for landing the Auburn businessman interviews with the Montgomery Advertiser and The Washington Post.
It’s worth noting Watson’s campaign also reached out to most news publications in Alabama — including Lagniappe — announcing his write-in candidacy shortly after sexual misconduct allegations against Moore first surfaced in the weeks before the election.
While write-in votes collectively may have impacted the number of votes cast for Moore, Watson ultimately received fewer votes than other candidates who ran write-in campaigns, including some, like University of Alabama Coach Nick Saban, who didn’t enter the race at all.
During the media call Thursday, Jones said his campaign had no knowledge of those activities, noting — as did The New York Times — it likely had little to no impact on the outcome of an election that saw Alabama elect a Democratic senator for the first time in 25 years.
Jones said he was “as outraged as everybody else” after reading the report.
“I have railed against Russian interference in our elections ever since I started campaigning and during this first year in the Senate,” Jones said. “But I think we’ve all kind of focused too much on just the Russians and not picked up on the fact that nefarious groups — whether right or left — could take the same playbook and start interfering with elections for their own damn benefit.”
He went on to call upon the Federal Elections Commission and the Department of Justice to “take a closer look” to determine whether any criminal laws were violated.
“We should not encourage or allow any group, regardless of who they are or whether they’re well-intentioned, to do the kind of things that illegally interfere with the elections process,” he added. “Something needs to be done, and the authorities need to use this example to start setting a course for the future and to let people know this is not acceptable in the United States.”
Reached by email, a spokesperson for New Knowledge clarified the firm was not directly involved in the events described in The Times article, but rather Morgan was acting as an independent researcher. However, New Knowledge did provide the following statement from Morgan:
“My involvement with the project described in The New York Times was as a cybersecurity researcher and expert with the intention to better understand and report on the tactics and effects of social media disinformation,” Morgan’s statement reads. “I did not participate in any campaign to influence the public and any characterization to the contrary misrepresents the research goals, methods and outcome of the project.”
Contrary to one of the claims made in the original Times report, Morgan also said he “never attended a presentation about the results” of the “Alabama Experiment.”