Senate report on Russian interference was written by disinformation warriors behind Alabama ‘false flag operation’
On December 17, two reports detailing ongoing Russian interference operations commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee were made public. They generated a week’s worth of headlines and sent members of Congress and cable news pundits into a Cold War frenzy. According to the report, everything from the Green Party’s Jill Stein to Instagram to Pokemon Go to the African American population had been used and confused by the deceptive Facebook pages of a private Russian troll farm called the Internet Research Agency.
Nevermind that 56% of the troll farm’s pages appeared after the election, that 25% of them were seen by no one, or that their miniscule online presence paled in comparison to the millions of dollars spent on social media by the two major presidential campaigns and their supporters to sway voters. This was an act of war that demanded immediate government action.
According to Sen. Mark Warner, the Democratic chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the reports were “a wake up call” and a “bombshell” that was certain to bring “long-overdue guardrails when it comes to social media”. His Republican counterpart on the committee, North Carolina Senator Richard Burr, hailed the research papers as “proof positive that one of the most important things we can do is increase information sharing between the social media companies who can identify disinformation campaigns and the third-party experts who can analyze them.”
But the authors of one of the reports soon suffered a major blow to their credibility when it was revealed that they had engaged in what they called a “Russian style” online disinformation operation aimed to swing a hotly contested special senate election. The embarrassing revelation has already resulted in one of the authors having his Facebook page suspended.
The well-funded deception was carried out by New Knowledge, a private cyber intelligence firm founded by two self-styled disinformation experts who are veterans of the Obama administration: Jonathon Morgan and Ryan Fox.
According to an internal New Knowledge report first seen by the New York Times, the firm carried out a multi-faceted influence operation designed to undermine a 2017 bid by right-wing Republican former state supreme court judge Roy Moore for an open Alabama senate seat. By its own admission, New Knowledge’s campaign capitalized on the sexual assault allegations against Moore to “enrage and energize Democrats” and “depress turnout” among Republicans.
To accomplish this, the New Knowledge team created a Facebook page aimed at appealing to conservative Alabamians by encouraging them to endorse an obscure patio supply salesman-turned-write-in candidate named Mac Watson. They hoped the subterfuge would peel votes away from Moore. It was precisely the kind of tactic that New Knowledge claims Russian troll farms carry out to sow divisions among the American electorate.
Morgan told the New York Times the effort stopped there. But the New Knowledge report says the Facebook page “boosted” Watson’s campaign and even arranged interviews for him with The Montgomery Advertiser and the Washington Post. At the same time, Watson’s Twitter following mysteriously jumped from 100 to about 10,000.
Of the dozens of conservative Alabamian Facebook pages the Watson campaign messaged, the New Knowledge-run page was the only one that responded to it. “You are in a particularly interesting position and from what we have read of your politics, we would be inclined to endorse you”, they wrote. New Knowledge then “asked Mr. Watson whether he trusted anyone to set up a super PAC that could receive funding and offered advice on how to sharpen his appeal to disenchanted Republican voters.”
While Watson communicated with the deceptive Facebook page, the New Knowledge operators never revealed their identity, and the page disappeared the day after the vote. “It was weird,” Watson commented to the New York Times. “The whole thing was weird.”
New Knowledge then sought to manufacture a link between Roy Moore’s campaign and the Kremlin by claiming thousands of his Twitter followers were Russian bots. Mainstream media outlets credulously ran with the narrative, insinuating that the Christian theocrat Moore was secretly backed by Russia.
As the Russian bot narrative peaked, Moore blamed the Jones campaign for manufacturing the scare. “It’s not surprising that they’d choose the favorite topic of MSNBC and the Fake News outlets — the Russia conspiracy. Democrats can’t win this election on the issues and their desperation is on full display.”
Moore’s opponent, Jones, said he had no knowledge of the operation.
Moore was roundly mocked in liberal circles as a conspiratorial crank, but New Knowledge’s internal report contained a stunning admission: “We orchestrated an elaborate ‘false flag’ operation that planted the idea that the Moore campaign was amplified on social media by a Russian botnet,” its authors revealed.