A tech industry billionaire has apologized for – but claimed ignorance about – a social media scheme that gave the impression the Russians meddled on behalf of Republican Roy Moore in his failed campaign against Doug Jones, the victorious Democrat in last year’s special Senate race in Alabama.
The co-founder and executive chairman of social media website LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman, backed an effort by cyber security firm New Knowledge, run by Democrat operative Jonathon Morgan, to mimic the same tactics blamed on the Russians for affecting the 2016 presidential election. About $100,000 of Hoffman’s money funded the ruse.
“The project’s operators created a Facebook page on which they posed as conservative Alabamians, using it to try to divide Republicans and even to endorse a write-in candidate to draw votes from Mr. Moore,” the New York Times reported. “It involved a scheme to link the Moore campaign to thousands of Russian accounts that suddenly began following the Republican candidate on Twitter, a development that drew national media attention.”
The newspaper gained the information from an internal report on the Alabama operation that it obtained. The strategy was said in part to emphasize Moore’s past alleged pursuits of teenage girls when he was in his 30s.
“We orchestrated an elaborate ‘false flag’ operation that planted the idea that the Moore campaign was amplified on social media by a Russian botnet,” the report said.
In an interview with the Times, Morgan feigned ignorance, saying the trickery “does not ring a bell,” and disavowed the report’s claims of intentions to “enrage and energize Democrats” and depress Republican turnout. He claimed it was an “experiment.”
“The research project was intended to help us understand how these kind of campaigns operated,” Morgan told the newspaper. “We thought it was useful to work in the context of a real election but design it to have almost no impact.”
Hoffman also claimed no knowledge about the deceptive tactics, conducted as part of a larger group he funded at $750,000, called American Engagement Technologies.
“I find the tactics that have been recently reported highly disturbing,” Hoffman said in his statement of apology to the Washington Post. “For that reason, I am embarrassed by my failure to track AET – the organization I did support – more diligently as it made its own decisions to perhaps fund projects that I would reject. I want to be unequivocal: there is absolutely no place in our democracy for manipulating facts or using falsehoods to gain political advantage.”
To its credit, Facebook suspended the accounts of Morgan and four other pages tied to the Hoffman-funded disinformation campaign.
“We take a strong stand against people or organizations that create networks of accounts to mislead others about who they are or what they’re doing,” Facebook said in a statement.
As if the pot was calling the kettle “black,” New Knowledge wrote a “bombshell” report for the Senate Intelligence Committee that claimed Russian bots and “troll farms” skewed the election in favor of President Trump via social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter.
As for Hoffman, he operates comparatively under the radar among Silicon Valley’s more famous wealthy liberals such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Apple’s Tim Cook, and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.
But his bank account is open wider than most, and he is very strategic about using it. He spread hundreds of millions of dollars around to various Democratic candidates, political action committees, and state level parties for the 2018 election cycle. Some are beginning to call him the “Koch brother of the Left,” after the well-known (and demonized by liberals and the media) siblings who finance many conservative causes.
“The LinkedIn co-founder has spent millions of dollars on startups that seek to boost voter turnout,” Recode reported a year ago. “He has backed nonprofits that study the future of work and the best ways to improve civic discourse online. And he’s donated to a roster of candidates, mostly Democrats, who are seeking their states’ governorships and seats in the U.S. Congress. Hoffman also emerged as a key donor in Virginia, where Democrats surprisingly routed their Republican opponents in crucial statehouse races.”
A vigorous opponent of President Trump, Hoffman has funded and advocated for the strengthening and modernization of Democrats and their operations across the board.
“He is hiring a coterie of advisers that give him more political muscle than the average mega-donor, and is positioning himself as a lighthouse to other wayward billionaires who want to get involved in politics but don’t know where to send their money,” Recode reported in August.
“Trump is a serious threat to American democracy,” he told the tech news website. “Shifting the balance of Congress this November will provide an important check to mitigate this threat.”
Hoffman even created a satirical board game about Trump that “captures the spirit of the Resistance.”
He has also invested in many outside-the-box political ventures that include many projects to improve the profile of the Democratic Party (making it more “relevant”), start-ups to overcome the data and technology advantage of Republicans, and a massive voter database aggregation tool that is making the Democratic National Committee nervous.
In Alabama, Attorney General Steve Marshall said he plans to look into the Senate race meddling.
“The information is concerning,” he told the Washington Post. “The impact it had on the election is something that’s significant for us to explore, and we’ll go from there.”
And given his politically ambitious and high-stakes ventures, Hoffman can expect a lot more scrutiny than he’s had as well.