Democratic Senate candidate Doug Jones has defeated Republican Roy Moore, a one-time GOP pariah who was embraced by his party even after facing allegations of sexual impropriety.
( John Bazemore
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On The Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And Bob Garfield. In the past month, the hotly contested 2017 Alabama's special election for US Senate has risen from the news grave. According to The New York Times and others, the triumph of Democrat Doug Jones over arch conservative Judge Roy Moore was sullied by online dirty tricks. Not from Russians but from American Democrats. With tactics borrowed from Russian interference in the last presidential campaign, a group called Project Birmingham used social media to falsely associate Moore with unpopular policies. In an election with more than a million votes cast, Jones beat him by fewer than 22,000 votes. Scott Shane, national security reporter for The New York Times, broke this story last month. We called him to bring us up to date. Scott, welcome back to the show.
SCOTT SHANE: Thanks for having me on.
BOB GARFIELD: There were two clandestine operations that took place in that race, only one was actually called Project Birmingham, would you tell me about it.
SCOTT SHANE: It's a project Birmingham was the effort of a small number of social media savvy Democrats. They wanted to try out what the Russians had done in the 2016 presidential election and they went so far as to create a conservative Facebook page. They were contacted by a write in candidate and they endorsed the write in candidate, a conservative candidate, to draw support from Roy Moore. And it's not exactly certain how they did this but they appear to have either created or bought a lot of Twitter accounts. Some of them appearing to be Russian using Cyrillic letters and set them up to follow the Twitter account of Roy Moore. And that actually led to some mainstream media coverage that suggested that somehow the Russians were supporting Roy Moore.
BOB GARFIELD: Pretty unbelievable. Then there was a second operation, which was more devious still.
SCOTT SHANE: Yeah the second one was operated only in the last two weeks of the race. What they had decided to do was to play on a divide among Alabama Republicans, between those who basically liked to drink and those who think that alcohol is a tool of the devil. So they created a Facebook page called Dry Alabama. That certainly appeared to be the work of sort of hardcore Baptists against alcohol, hoping business conservatives in Alabama who don't want to see the state ban alcohol, would associate Roy Moore's candidacy with a sort of hard core Christian approach and therefore either not turn out, not vote or vote for the Democrat. So there was Dry Alabama and then there was another page called Southern Caller which essentially had the same message. They were posing as extreme religious conservatives who lived in Alabama. But most of these people were progressive Democrats who lived far from Alabama.
BOB GARFIELD: We hear a lot these days about false flag operations, mainly insane conspiracies floated by the likes of Alex Jones, and they're easily dismissed because they're more ironic. But now, there is this case in which Democrats, albeit in a tiny little operation, have been caught red handed trying to influence a senatorial election with false flags. Have I over stated the case?
SCOTT SHANE: you know, I wouldn't compare either of these operations to Alex Jones InfoWars in terms of scale. But I had written a lot about what the Russians did in 2016 and I had thought about this question of 'would these same techniques appeal to dirty tricksters in American politics?' The thing is these operations can be carried out in a very secretive way. I learned about them both basically because insiders talk to me. If you don't have an insider who's going to tell you that, you would never know. So my suspicion is that this has been tried much more broadly, almost certainly, on the Republican side and on the Democratic side. Both these operations happen to be Democrats. And I do think that that special Senate election in Alabama, because it came along when you think about it was in December of 2017, the sort of exposure of the Russian operations on Facebook and Twitter and so on in 2016, took months really to come out. That took place in the summer and fall of '17. There were congressional hearings. So then December of '17 this very hard fought, very important Senate election and I think that's maybe one reason why folks decided to use it as a testing ground.
BOB GARFIELD: You mentioned that you'd studied the Russian interference. Indeed, you'd studied it and reported heavily on it. Another outfit that studied Russian interference was a digital consultancy called New Knowledge, which is one of the organizations that submitted a report to Congress about Russian interference. Weirdly, New Knowledge was part of this conspiracy.
SCOTT SHANE: So New Knowledge, as you say, is a small cyber security company. And I've gotten mixed messages from the people at the company. Jonathan Morgan, the CEO, in particular, initially he told me new knowledge as a company had no role in the Birmingham Project as it was called. Subsequently, he has said in public statements, that in fact New Knowledge as a company did do this work. They have been so vocal against what the Russians did in 2016. To be caught doing it themselves is, I think, pretty devastating. Jonathan Morgan's excuse is it was a very small operation and they really wanted to just run some tests and kind of understand the whole problem of social media fraud in politics better. But that doesn't sort very well with the written report, which makes it very clear that the effort was designed to help Doug Jones win.
BOB GARFIELD: This sounds to me like researching airport security by hijacking a plane.
SCOTT SHANE: Haha.
BOB GARFIELD: It--it doesn't sound like an entirely academic pursuit.
SCOTT SHANE: You know, in talking to the people who are involved in both of these episodes. I've detected two competing theories. One is the Republicans are undoubtedly doing this and therefore the Democrats have to do it too. But I also heard from people involved in these operations who had deeply mixed feelings. And certainly, people outside who were quite horrified and fearful that were really going to have a kind of race to the bottom with folks on both sides to make Facebook and Twitter into completely unreliable sources of political information.
BOB GARFIELD: Well certainly, Democrats have lost some, if not all, moral authority on the subject of manipulated elections. And they've been playing the moral authority card through the entirety of the Mueller investigation. It seems to me that the political damage here is incalculable, but trying to calculate it.
SCOTT SHANE: As you say even though these are very small operations total of 200,000 budget out of $51 million spent on that Alabama Senate campaign, once you do something like this one time, it's a label you're going to carry around forever. And even though this was not the official Jones campaign or any official democratic element, they are all going to probably have to carry the burden and trying to not be hurt by it.
BOB GARFIELD: If I were the Democratic National Committee, my very first move after issuing pro-forma statement of repugnance for this kind of conduct, would be to take some portion of my 2020 war chest and to try to track down similar activities by elements of the GOP. If they do that, and I assume they will, do expect them to have any luck? Or for that matter, do you expect your phone to ring with a similar kind of story from the political opposition?
SCOTT SHANE: If anyone listening to your show wants to get in touch, haha, it's just Scott.Shane@NYtimes.com. You know what this reminds me of, somewhat, is doping in sports. Where if you're an athlete and you think your opponents, your competitors, are going to be doping, the pressure is on you to use steroids or other drugs as well. But it's similar also in the sense that it's very difficult and a very technical issue to detect. To look at the Dry Alabama Facebook page and somehow deduce that it was a false flag created by people who undoubtedly, you know, are fond of drinking. It's just not evident from looking at it. So you have to get behind the scenes, probably either working closely with Facebook in that case or somehow penetrating the operation, getting somebody to talk. My guess is, based on talking to the folks who did these projects, that there were a bunch in the midterms and hopefully we'll learn more about it and maybe draw some lessons on how you prevent it.
BOB GARFIELD: Well blood doping analogy well taken. Unfortunately as a voting American, I feel like the dope.
SCOTT SHANE: Haha. There have always been dirty tricksters going back many decades in American politics. But moving it on to Facebook and Twitter, Facebook in particular, where so many Americans get their news about politics. I will never again look at an American political page on Facebook without wondering 'hey, you know, is this what it appears to be or is this done by the other side?'
BOB GARFIELD: Scott, thank you very much.
SCOTT SHANE: Thank you Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Scott Shane is a national security reporter for The New York Times.