January 6, 2019

Project Alabama

By Melissa Ryan

As headlines go, “Secret Experiment in Alabama Senate Race Imitated Russian Tactics” is pretty enticing. Understandably, the NYT story that accompanied it last month caused a lot of hoopla in political and research circles. It alleged that American “Democratic tech experts decided to try out similarly deceptive tactics in the fiercely contested Alabama Senate race, according to people familiar with the effort and a report on its results”. The fact that the initial report was long on speculation and short on actual details didn’t matter, nor did that what was described in the article wasn’t an “experiment” in the literal sense, but rather a digital campaign, or series of digital campaigns. Just the notion that Americans on the left might have deployed social media tactics developed by Russian operatives was enough to set off a frenzy.

The project (or Project Birhimgham as we now know it) was described sounds pretty scandalous. From the NYT article:

An internal report on the Alabama effort, obtained by The New York Times, says explicitly that it “experimented with many of the tactics now understood to have influenced the 2016 elections.”

The project’s operators created a Facebook page on which they posed as conservative Alabamians, using it to try to divide Republicans and even to endorse a write-in candidate to draw votes from Mr. Moore. It involved a scheme to link the Moore campaign to thousands of Russian accounts that suddenly began following the Republican candidate on Twitter, a development that drew national media attention.

“We orchestrated an elaborate ‘false flag’ operation that planted the idea that the Moore campaign was amplified on social media by a Russian botnet,” the report says.

At the center of the storm was New Knowledge, a social media startup that had just released a report on Russian Interference commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee two days prior. The timing of the article was almost certainly intentional. Either the Times held it for a newsworthy moment, or it was a well-timed and well-executed hit designed to discredit the Senate Intel report. My initial suspicion was that it was a hit, but given that the Times reporter first learned about the existence of the Alabama project via his participation in an off-the-record event run by the same folks behind it (a fact he did not disclose in his article), the former seems plausible as well.

Whatever the origin of the article, New Knowledge has been playing defense ever since, saying their involvement was minimal, they did not work with bots, and that the New York Times article was misleading. I’m mostly inclined to believe New Knowledge’s version of events but I also have a lot of questions about the full extent of their involvement, especially given that Facebook has suspended several of their accounts for being “inauthentic”. And I’m not the only one.

Meanwhile, nearly everyone else mentioned in the Times article has also disavowed the project or claimed not to know the full extent of Project Birmingham, including Reid Hoffman, who invested $750,000 in the company behind it but claimed not to know about the particular project. Just today Mikey Dickerson, founder AET, the company behind the project claimed in a Washington Post article that even he didn’t know everything about Project Birmingham’s activities saying “I received the report in early 2018, which is when I first learned about the false flag and write-in tactics.”

Senator Doug Jones has called for a federal investigation.

At this point I should disclose while I did not work on the Alabama Senate race in any capacity, I have spoken to, met, or worked with almost everyone mentioned in articles about the Alabama project, some of whom I spoke to about digital campaigns that might have become components of it or another digital effort in that election. Renee DiResta and Jonathon Morgan, in particular, have been frequent contacts and we’ve worked on projects together in a volunteer capacity, most notably Facebook Exposed, a website that let users know if they’d likely come into contact with Russian IRA memes on Facebook. Feel free to consider this and take my views on everything with a grain of salt.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking the Alabama project over. Here’s what matters:

Trolling for political purposes is our new normal. Clint Watts predicted that trolls for hire would become an available service for every political campaign months ago, but I expect candidates will steer clear of troll armies as a strategy. Instead, independent expenditure groups and actors completely outside the campaign apparatus will play in this space. There aren’t many laws in place to regulate this activity, and the one agency that could put regulations in place is barely functioning in the Trump Administration. It’s the logical next step in a system of campaign finance that’s long been fundamentally broken.

Russian trolls aren’t the problem but a symptom of what the Internet has become. There’s no such thing as an organic experience online, especially on social media. Trolls of all stripes: domestic, or foreign, political, or commercial, are constantly manipulating our online experience and tech platforms continue to do little to stop them. As Max Read points out in his excellent New Yorker piece, the Internet is fake.

We all, and I include myself in this, need to be a lot more skeptical about what we’re consuming online. I gripe a lot about how political journalists get duped by trolls but I’ve seen political operatives, activists, and even a few who study and research extremism get taken in by the work of trolls this year as well. Confirmation bias is a hell of a drug and no matter what your beliefs and political leanings, it’s a drug freely available all over the web.

Meanwhile, the fact that we’re even debating the ethics of trolling as a political tactic says a lot about America democracy, and none of it is good.

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