The Stew Reporting on government and politics

It’s not just the Russians

Politics | Domestic political groups caught using social media subterfuge
by Harvest Prude
Posted 1/10/19, 04:28 pm

After reports that American Democratic operatives used a Russian-style online misinformation campaign against a Republican U.S. Senate candidate, voters should be alert but not necessarily alarmed about political deception on social media, according to political experts.

The New York Times reported this week that in 2017, progressive Democrats launched a stealth social media project to sabotage Republican candidate Roy Moore in the Alabama special election for the U.S. Senate seat vacated when President Donald Trump chose Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Democrats posed as teetotaler conservatives in the “Dry Alabama” campaign and tried to link Moore with calls to reenact prohibition. The campaign sought to damage Moore’s chances with conservative businesspeople in the state by targeting them with misleading messages in Facebook ads.

In another attempt, dubbed “Project Birmingham,” Democratic operatives created false evidence to make it look like Russian bots promoted Moore’s campaign on Twitter. They also created a Facebook campaign urging Republicans to write in a rival candidate to split the vote. Their posts targeted about 650,000 potential voters. Billionaire Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn and a frequent Democratic donor, helped fund the project, The Washington Post reported. Former Obama administration official Mikey Dickerson also had connections with the campaign. Hoffman and Dickerson denied knowing how their money was used. Dry Alabama and Project Birmingham received $100,000 through a progressive political organization called Investing in Us.

But the so-called “false flag” campaigns likely had minimal effect on the Alabama election because Moore was already struggling against accusations of sexual misconduct dug up from his past. Democrat Doug Jones narrowly won the election by 22,000 votes.

The use of such tactics, employed not by enemies overseas but by rival political parties on U.S. soil, led Jones to call for an investigation into the attempts, which he denied knowing anything about. Activists admitted that they got the idea from Russia’s aggressive strategy of spreading misinformation and discord in the 2016 U.S. presidential election on social media platforms.

A couple of political experts told me that though such attempts are shameful, dirty tricks in politics are nothing new. Fake Twitter accounts merely join a slate of tactics such as voter fraud, misleading fliers, robocalls, and false email campaigns.

Ryan Hagemann, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank, said political strategists also often exaggerate the effect of such efforts. He pointed out such strategists have an incentive for politicians to believe their services can have a significant impact on voter turnout. “The ability for one side to effectively and accurately target the other side’s voter base with appealing messaging is pretty rare—especially in an age of hyperpartisanship, where both extremes tend to caricature the other,” Hagemann said.

Local races, like the one in Alabama, might be more vulnerable to such tampering, he said, because it is easier to drum up enough funds in smaller campaigns to rival spending devoted to above-the-board efforts like door-to-door campaigning and phone calls. National elections tend to have more eyes watching for fraudulent behavior, including the national media and national security officials.

Andy Keiser, a fellow at the National Security Institute, advised voters to be more skeptical about the online political information they encounter. Voters are generally aware that TV attack ads come from groups with specific biases and interests, he said, but in the digital age, voters must increasingly apply that same level of awareness and scrutiny when it comes to information on social media.

Keiser also said knowing that foreign powers like Russia are still spreading misinformation should keep voters watchful, but Americans should not be surprised at such malevolent attempts.

“Some reports you read—you would think the Russians woke up in 2015 and decided to meddle in someone else’s election,” Keiser said, pointing out that the Russians have tried to meddle in other people’s governance for the past 70 years, though only recently have they incorporated social media. “In their view, anything that knocks the U.S. or the West a peg or two down is a good day for the Russians.”

Associated Press/Photo by Orlin Wagner Associated Press/Photo by Orlin Wagner Sen. Pat Roberts and his wife, Frankie, after he announced his upcoming retirement from the U.S. Senate in Manhattan, Kan., Friday

Open seat

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., announced last week he will not seek reelection in 2020. Roberts, 82, is serving his fourth term.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would become the longest serving member of Congress in this state’s history,” Roberts said Friday at the Kansas Department of Agriculture campus in Manhattan near Kansas State University, his alma mater. He began his career on Capitol Hill as an aide in 1967. In 1980, he won a U.S. House seat and was elected to the Senate in 1996. Roberts, who will be 84 in 2020, faced grueling primary and general elections in 2014. But he rebuffed the idea that he was retiring due to pressure to step aside, saying, “I think it’s just timing,” and promising “a sprint to the finish line” during his final two years in office.

U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall of Kansas announced Friday he is considering a run for the GOP nomination for Roberts’ seat. Marshall serves the same western congressional district Roberts did. Other potential Republican candidates include Gov. Jeff Colyer, who leaves office this month, and outgoing Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who lost to Democrat Laura Kelly in November’s governor’s race. Republicans have held both U.S. Senate seats in Kansas since 1932.

Roberts is the second veteran GOP senator to announce recently he will not seek reelection in 2020. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said in December he planned to retire at the end of this term. —Kiley Crossland

Associated Press/Photo by Jae C. Hong Associated Press/Photo by Jae C. Hong The West Hollywood, Calif., building where Ed Buck lives

Suspicious deaths

Democratic lawmakers are rejecting contributions from donor Edward Buck, who is under investigation after a man died in his California home from a drug overdose. It was the second such death on Buck’s property since 2017.

Police said an African-American man was found dead at the house Monday morning after a distress call. CNN identified the man as 55-year-old Timothy Dean. In July 2017, 26-year-old Gemmel Moore, also African-American, fatally overdosed at Buck’s residence. Buck, who is 64, was on the scene during both incidents. Moore’s mother, Latisha Nixon, accused Buck of preying on young, gay black men, but prosecutors ruled Moore’s death accidental and decided not to charge Buck. Officers said they would review that case as they investigate Monday’s death.

Buck has given tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates over the years. Rep. Ted Lieu of California said he would donate the $18,000 he has received in campaign contributions from Buck to African-American and LGBT groups. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., said his campaign would donate $1,000 he had previously received from Buck to a charity to combat drug addiction. —H.P.

‘A force for good’

In a speech last week at the American University in Cairo, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a scathing critique of former President Barack Obama’s policy toward the Middle East. He credited President Donald Trump for restoring U.S. strength and influence in the region and reducing the threat Iran poses to the West.

“The age of self-inflicted American shame is over, and so are the policies that produced so much needless suffering,” Pompeo said. “In just 24 months, actually less than two years, the United States under President Trump has reasserted its traditional role as a force for good in this region, because we’ve learned from our mistakes.” —Lynde Langdon

Check’s in the mail

Even if the partial government shutdown continues, taxpayers owed refunds will be paid on time. The IRS is among the agencies affected by the shutdown. But Russell Vought, acting director of the White House budget office, said the Trump administration will change the customary rules to make the payments possible. Tax filing season begins Jan. 28, and the IRS said it plans to recall a large number of furloughed employees to process tax returns. —Kent Covington

Harvest Prude

Harvest is a reporter for WORLD based in Washington, D.C.

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