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.”