Even as sexual assault allegations tanked his Senate run, Alabama candidate Roy Moore was targeted by two Democrat-linked online operation. One tried to link the conservative with a fake anti-alcohol campaign and alienate voters.
Comprising a Facebook page and Twitter feed, ‘Dry Alabama’ looked like it came right out of the Puritans playbook: Graphic images of car wrecks and domestic abuse accompanied calls for a statewide alcohol ban in Alabama, along with an exhortation to all good Christian voters: “Pray for Roy Moore.”
The campaign wasn’t the work of hardcore, teetotalling conservatives, however, but of a progressive group out to split Moore’s supporter base – between the pro-alcohol business conservatives and anti-alcohol hardliners – and guarantee a win for his Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, a New York Times report has revealed.
“Re-enact Prohibition and make Alabama dry again!” read one post, cooked up not by a Birmingham pastor, but a Democrat hiding behind a fake online persona.
The group responsible was cybersecurity company New Knowledge, a firm that ironically claims to specialize in “protecting brands from social media disinformation attacks.” Among the staff who worked on the ‘Dry Alabama’ campaign was Evan Corer, a progressive activist, who according to the Times works for a government office handling classified documents. Needless to say, Corer refused the Times’ requests for comment.
Dry Alabama’s Facebook and Twitter accounts have both been suspended as of now, but featured New Knowledge’s staff faking Alabama accents in videos to impersonate conservatives, among other gems.
Another staff member and activist said that such dirty tactics are necessary to win elections.
“If you don’t do it, you’re fighting with one hand tied behind your back,” Matt Osborne told the Times. “You have a moral imperative to do this — to do whatever it takes.”
If all of this sounds a little familiar, that’s because it is. ‘Dry Alabama’ was the second campaign by New Knowledge to swing the Alabama election. Last month it was revealed that the firm also tried to smear Moore as some kind of Russian operative by creating armies of fake Russian social media accounts to follow the Republican candidate before the election – a political death sentence in the age of ‘Russiagate’ hysteria.
In New Knowledge’s own words, the company “orchestrated an elaborate ‘false flag’ operation that planted the idea that the Moore campaign was amplified on social media by a Russian botnet.”
The operations weren’t funded by Jones or his campaign, but by a collection of progressive donors, including LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, who donated $700,000 to American Engagement Technologies, a group run by former Obama official Mike Dickerson. AET helped finance the botnet operation, and funding for both operations was also sent by two anonymous Virginia donors through Investing in Us, a progressive organization that finances political operations.
New Knowledge’s operations were revealed by a New York Times report published late December. In a bizarre twist, the report’s author, Scott Shane, actually knew about the botnet operation long before he chose to reveal it. The journalist spoke at a conference organized by AET in September 2017, during which Dickerson outlined the – in his own words – “false flag” campaign.
We’re sorry, blame Russia!
Shane, a veteran national security reporter, explained that attended the conference thinking it would be an earnest discussion on cybersecurity, and then kept quiet so as not to jeopardize his sources in the paranoid world of NatSec.
New Knowledge, on the other hand, insisted that their work was a research project, “solely meant to deepen our understanding of how people react to new information in a hyper-partisan social media environment.” The organization has not commented on the ‘Dry Alabama’ revelation.
Despite helping to reveal the story, Shane helped defend New Knowledge, writing that the organization was aping “Russian tactics” allegedly deployed to swing the 2016 presidential election for Trump.
The kicker? New Knowledge actually authored a Senate report on the very same ‘Russian’ meddling they engaged in themselves. New Knowledge’s CEO, Jonathon Morgan, is also one of the developers of the Hamilton 68 Dashboard, a McCarthy-esque blackist that purports to monitor Kremlin trolls active on Twitter.
Excuses and admissions
After all the skulduggery, was New Knowledge’s campaign actually effective? The company itself thinks so. A leaked after-action report claims that the disinformation campaigns dropped “hard Republican” turnout by five percent across the state, and were successful in “forcing targeted communities to interact with our narratives,” meaning lots of people saw posts from the tens of thousands of fake accounts manufactured.
It is unclear to what extent ‘Dry Alabama’ contributed to this success, but the page was noticed by conservatives, including Elizabeth BeShears, a communications consultant who mistook the disinfo page for a sincere but misguided attempt to win voters.
“Y’all’s targeting is so wrong,” she tweeted in response. However, BeShears also told the Times that she ended up not voting for Moore.
“Our campaign was cheap and anonymous,” New Knowledge boasted in its report. “We spent $100k….however, is spite of our impact, not a single story about our activities appeared in any press outlet, including far-right internet-focused conspiracy sites.”
That might might not seem like much money, especially in an election race that cost over $50 million. However, Moore lost by around 22,000 votes out of more than 1.3 million who turned out. New Knowledge and other self-proclaimed experts in “Russian” meddling have accused Moscow of tilting the 2016 election with less than $100,000.