Domestic influence campaigns borrow from Russia’s playbook

Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) is aggressively going after the individuals and groups behind newly revealed influence campaigns that targeted his special election a little more than a year ago.

But instead of looking for the perpetrators in Russia or China, the responsible entities are U.S.-based. And they are replicating some of the tactics used by foreign groups.

“We’ve been so focused on Russians that we’ve failed to look” here, he told The Hill on Thursday. “There are nefarious groups in this country that will use their playbook. And we’ve just got to stop it.”

{mosads}The Washington Post and The New York Times recently reported on two separate operations — one conducted by social media researchers and another by a group of progressive Democrats — that utilized tactics similar to those used by Russians during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Jones maintains that the influence operations did not impact the outcome of the December 2017 special election. But experts said the efforts nonetheless raise questions about what impact they had on a race where Jones was neck-and-neck with his GOP competitor, Roy Moore, in polls near the end of the race.

The reports also shine a light on domestic attempts to sway U.S. elections, and show that Russia’s playbook isn’t limited to foreign governments who want influence American politics.

Jones said U.S. election officials need to condemn any group that tries to influence voters’ opinions.

In a letter sent Wednesday to Federal Election Commission (FEC) Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, Jones requested the commission “conduct a thorough investigation” into the allegations and that the “maximum penalties allowed” be imposed if any laws were violated.

“It is imperative to send a clear message that these disinformation tactics will not be tolerated and will be punished to the fullest extent of the law,” he wrote.

{mossecondads}The allegations are striking both because of the tactics used and the individuals involved.

Jonathon Morgan, the first researcher said to have created a fake Facebook page for the race, works for the cybersecurity firm New Knowledge, which issued a report last year on social media misinformation campaigns carried out by Russians in 2016.

The Post reported last month that during the special election, Morgan created a fake Facebook page aimed at conservatives and purchased a handful of retweets to measure what kind of impact the moves would have on the race.

The newspaper later reported that the effort was funded by LinkedIn founder and Democratic donor Reid Hoffman, who apologized for his involvement but denied any knowledge of the influence attempts.

Hoffman had reportedly made a donation to the progressive tech firm American Engagement Technologies (AET), which in turn hired New Knowledge.

Morgan initially told the Post that he created the page in his individual capacity as a researcher. He later wrote in a Medium post that he worked with AET to carry out the research, which he said began when then-Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) was widely predicted to be both the GOP nominee and eventual winner in the special election.

He said that he regrets having been involved in the research project.

A spokesperson for New Knowledge said Morgan was not available for additional comment to The Hill. Morgan did not return an individual request for comment.

The New York Times reported that a group of progressive Democrats had taken on a second, separate influence campaign by creating a “Dry Alabama” Facebook page that appeared to back Moore, with hopes that Republicans who opposed a proposed ban on alcohol would write in the name of another GOP candidate in the election.

Matt Osborne, one of the Democrats behind the project, told The Hill that he did not know who funded the effort, and maintained that none of the actions were illegal.

He said that while the Facebook page did not disclose its true purpose, he and others working on it only used real articles and quotes from officials on alcohol laws to try to drive voters away from Moore.

“I saw a potential vulnerability there, that if you could point out the fissure between the business wing of the party and the piety wing of the party, that this could possibly work as an online effort to get Republicans to either vote for a write-in or to vote for the Democrat or to not vote at all,” Osborne said.

He said he stood by his involvement in trying to boost Jones’s campaign.

“I don’t see the moralizing response getting us anywhere,” he added.

Joseph Smith, the chair of the political science department at the University of Alabama, said he didn’t think the two influence operations would have played a decisive role in the race given Moore’s name recognition.

Moore ran in several statewide races before his Senate campaign, and was twice elected as the chief justice for the state’s Supreme Court. His 2017 Senate bid, however, was roiled by allegations of sexual misconduct with underage girls, which sparked weeks of widespread national coverage.

But Smith called the influence efforts a “dangerous trends for elections.”

“Unless changes are made by social media companies, either spurred by the government or on their own, or unless voters change the way they use social to make voting decisions, then I think it’s absolutely likely we’ll see more of this in the future,” Smith said.

“And I suspect it will get even harder to detect,” he added.

Elliot Panek, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama who studies digital and social media, said the third-party movements could inadvertently cast doubt on the legitimacy on election outcomes.

“I think the worry is more pronounced when elections are close,” Panek said, noting that even factors like the weather on Election Day can impact vote tallies.

Smith said it’s possible that the operations could be in violation of campaign finance law, but with no clear understanding of who funded what and when, it could be difficult to pin down exactly who was at fault.

He said that even if the FEC were to penalize one of the parties involved, he wasn’t sure if it would be an effective deterrent for future influence operations.

“That doesn’t seem like a way that’s likely to stop these things,” Smith said.

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