BOB GARFIELD: As the Times reported earlier this week, one participant in the dry Alabama effort was local progressive activist Matt Osborne. He told us that the deception and misrepresentation on his part was no big deal.
MATT OSBORNE: I would not say there was a whole lot of deception involved. The only deception was who we were. The material that we used was real. We weren't in using fake news. We were using real links, things that people really say.
BOB GARFIELD: But you were posing as Dry Alabama supporters. This is classically a false flag, right?
MATT OSBORNE: Yes and that's the words that I used from the beginning that this was a false flag operation. The idea for doing this came from studying what the Russians had done.
BOB GARFIELD: A moment ago, you said there was only one deceptive aspect to the whole thing, that it wasn't fake news that you were using, it was real content misrepresenting only the nature of the people who were dispensing the content. You've said in other interviews that you didn't break any laws. Were there any red lines for you?
MATT OSBORNE: There are red lines for me personally. I wasn't going to try and scam anyone out of the dollar. I wasn't going to use race baiting or anything like that. There were some edicts that came down from above. I don't know who the donors were, but I know that they did not want us to engage in any homophobia. They did not want us to, say, raffle off a AR15 in order to get attention. I am not a lawyer, but there is no body of law, to my knowledge, that says you cannot misrepresent yourself. There is a standard at Facebook. They don't like you having a fake profile. They want your profile to be one profile that belongs to you and has a real name on it. But you can have any number of pages and those pages can operate in any way you want. You don't get shut down just because you are pretending to be someone you're not as a page. Facebook was built for this. Facebook is a data collecting organization that allows advertisers to target specific consumers. It's the perfect weapon for someone who wants to do this kind of campaign.
BOB GARFIELD: Did it work?
MATT OSBORNE: If you mean how much did we spend versus what did we accomplish, I would say that a $100,000 for three million different people being targeted, that's actually really good numbers. It costs, usually dollars per vote, to get out the vote. We're talking now about pennies per vote. You know, my first order of business was to elect Doug Jones but my second order of business was to have some data. Because we're having this conversation about whether these campaigns work and what kind of reach they have, but we're having it in the dark. We don't have any data. We just have political clicks that have their own point of view and what the narrative they want to be. In the absence of data, you're not going to be able to reach some kind of conclusion about regulation or laws.
BOB GARFIELD: You've written that you believe that the law should protect voters from precisely the kind of tactics that you employed.
MATT OSBORNE: You know I've been writing about dark money nonprofits for years and this is a problem–you have a shield of anonymity. So if we made it easier for citizens to know who is speaking to them, then it's fine if money is speech, as long as we are able to disclose who that speech is coming from.
BOB GARFIELD: Who bankrolled it? Who's the financier?
MATT OSBORNE: I do not have an answer as to who actually gave us the money.
BOB GARFIELD: What was the name on the check you cashed to pay for your work?
MATT OSBORNE: The check actually came from Beth Becker who is listed in that New York Times article. And again, this is part of our problem. We have made it very easy to hide the money and the source of the money when we're talking about political advertising.
BOB GARFIELD: So you've spent a good part of your career following the trail of dark money and advocating for transparency.
MATT OSBORNE: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: And yet there you are, the mastermind of this conspiracy of deception. How the hell do you square that circle?
MATT OSBORNE: You know what, sauce for the goose, is sauce for the gander. I'm not going to sit here and just let you tick me over and over again. I am no longer willing to play by a set of rules that have been designed with a double standard in mind. If someone in Alabama wants to cry and say, 'oh I feel disenfranchised now.' Well, this is the state that first required IDs of black voters and then shut down the DMV's in the majority black counties. So you tell me, you know, how terrible is it for you that you feel disenfranchised.
BOB GARFIELD: You're saying that the ends justify the means?
MATT OSBORNE: I'm saying that we're never going to have this conversation, we're never going to have productive legislation or regulation until we actually face this. That was my objective in coming out with this, to make sure that people understood the problem.
BOB GARFIELD: Well let's just say that was your objective. And let's just say that we now do have more understanding of the problem. Have you given any thought about what effect this episode has on the trust for real news organizations, real advocacy groups, real political speech? Have you thought about the loss of moral authority as a result of this?
MATT OSBORNE: What moral authority was I granted before? I've been denounced as a liar for years. I write about true things, I use facts, I use documentation, it doesn't matter. I'm a liar, I'm a terrible terrible liar.
BOB GARFIELD: Well see it's not just rhetoric. Now, you're caught red handed. In fact, you've confessed. Does that not do long term damage to the very principles that you've been espousing for your entire political life?
MATT OSBORNE: You tell me. What is in the balance? What is worse, is it me doing a Facebook campaign that imitates these tactics and then showing you that this stuff actually can have an effect or is it massive disinformation efforts from Russia that swing a presidential election? We're doing this activity and it's not being regulated, it's not under any kind of legal regimen at all. So you want me to say what the morality is of my doing that when it's happening all around me.
BOB GARFIELD: You said that you fear we're in a race to the bottom, I think this conversation is evidence that we are absolutely in a race to the bottom. My question for you is, is this the bottom?
MATT OSBORNE: No. I predict that in 2020 you will see lots of money come rushing in at the last weeks of the race. I think that you're going to see a movement towards dark money spending on digital campaigns in the closing days of the race. This is going to be the new normal. And until we take it seriously and talk about how taking money and dark money affect our politics, it will continue to warp our politics. You asked me, you know, had I done something wrong. Well there is something going wrong. It's going wrong on a massive scale. All I'm doing is showing you how it goes wrong.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Thank you very much for spending the time with us.
MATT OSBORNE: All right. Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Matt Osborne is a political activist based in Alabama.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER].
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, on the internet no one knows you're a dog or a bot or a liar. But everyone feels kinda lied to–except the bots and maybe the dogs.