A secret effort to influence the 2017 Senate election in Alabama used tactics inspired by Russian disinformation teams, including the creation of fake accounts to deliver misleading messages on Facebook to hundreds of thousands of voters to help elect Democrat Doug Jones in the deeply red state, according to a document obtained by The Washington Post.
But unlike the 2016 presidential campaign when Russians worked to help elect Donald Trump, the people behind the Alabama effort — dubbed Project Birmingham — were Americans. Now Democratic operatives and a research firm known to have had roles in Project Birmingham are distancing themselves from its most controversial tactics.
Jones’s narrow, upset victory over Republican Roy Moore in all likelihood resulted from other factors, political analysts say. Moore spent much of the special-election campaign battling reports in The Post that he had decades earlier made unwanted sexual advances toward teenage girls.
Recent revelations about Project Birmingham, however, have shocked Democrats in Alabama and Washington. And news of the effort has underscored the warnings of disinformation experts who long have said that threats to honest, transparent political discourse in the age of social media are as likely to be domestic as foreign.
As the scandal has expanded, with calls for federal and state investigations and Facebook also conducting a review, the tactics described in the Project Birmingham document have come under intense scrutiny. Those included a “false flag” effort that generated phony evidence that automated Russian accounts called bots had supported Moore on Twitter and the creation of a misleading Facebook page, aimed at Alabama conservatives, that sought to undermine Moore by encouraging them to vote for a rival Republican through a write-in campaign.
But all those who have acknowledged playing a role in Project Birmingham have denied knowing the full extent of the activities described in the document.
Project Birmingham got its funding from Internet billionaire Reid Hoffman, who emerged as a leading underwriter of Democratic causes after the 2016 election. While acknowledging his money ended up paying for Project Birmingham, Hoffman said he did not know how his funds were used until details began to emerge in the New York Times and The Post.
Hoffman gave $750,000 to a progressive technology start-up called American Engagement Technologies — founded by Mikey Dickerson, a former Obama administration official — that aimed to help Democrats, according to a person familiar with the finances who spoke on the condition of anonymity. This person said Dickerson used $100,000 of that to hire New Knowledge, a Texas-based social media research firm, to work in Alabama in support of Jones during the special election in December 2017.
Dickerson — who is best known for leading the effort to fix HealthCare.gov, the glitchy portal for President Barack Obama’s signature health-care initiative — said in a statement to The Post that he learned of the extent of Project Birmingham only months after it was complete, when he received a report on the operation.
“I received the report in early 2018, which is when I first learned about the false flag and write-in tactics,” Dickerson said in his statement, his first public comment on the controversy.
That report, he said, came from New Knowledge, a company known mainly for its efforts to investigate online disinformation. More recently, it co-authored a report last month on Russian disinformation for the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Jonathon Morgan, the chief executive of New Knowledge, has denied knowledge of most of the activities described in the Project Birmingham document and disputed Dickerson’s claim that New Knowledge authored it.
'Influence the outcome'
What is known about Project Birmingham comes mainly from the 12-page document labeled “Project Birmingham Debrief,” which was obtained by The Post. It is dated Dec. 15, 2017, three days after the Alabama vote.
The document describes the effort as “a digital messaging operation to influence the outcome of the AL senate race” by targeting 650,000 likely voters with messages on social media platforms such as Facebook, while obscuring the fact that the messages were coming from an effort backing Jones. Jones has said he had no knowledge of Project Birmingham and has called for a federal investigation.
The goal of the effort was to “radicalize Democrats, suppress unpersuadable Republicans (“hard Rs”) and faction moderate Republicans by advocating for write-in candidates,” the document states.
The document also makes bold but unverified claims about the effects of the operation, saying that it provided the decisive margin in an election decided by fewer than 22,000 voters — moving “enough votes to ensure a Doug Jones victory.”
Political analysts expressed skepticism that any of these tactics affected the election.
“My initial gut says that the alleged disinformation campaign I’ve read about would not have been enough to affect this race. Roy Moore is so well known in Alabama that people had very settled opinions about whether they wanted them as their senator before the race even started,” said University of Alabama political scientist Joseph L. Smith.
Last September, Dickerson presented what he said was a truncated version of the Project Birmingham debrief at a meeting of technology experts — several of them alumni of the Obama administration — in downtown Washington. The 13 attendees of that meeting were required to sign nondisclosure agreements.
In the version of the document distributed at the meeting, a black rectangle obscured part of a sentence that would have made clear the name of the entity that conducted Project Birmingham. After weeks of declining to comment, Dickerson told The Post that the redaction was “NK” — for New Knowledge.
“Prior to presenting the report in September, I edited New Knowledge’s report for length and to redact identifying information,” Dickerson wrote in his statement to The Post. “This was the only firsthand account of this kind of operation that I knew of, so I presented it to the group to analyze and discuss.”
Dickerson declined to answer numerous other questions about the campaign, including what he knew of Hoffman’s role.
Before Dickerson had sent his statement to The Post, Morgan, the New Knowledge chief, had publicly denied writing the Project Birmingham report or knowing about most of what it describes.
Morgan, in comments to The Post and in a blog post on the self-publishing site Medium, acknowledged conducting some “experiments” with disinformation tactics during the Alabama election. Those included creating a Facebook page called “Alabama Conservative Politics” that shared news links with its followers. He also said that New Knowledge spent about $30,000 on targeted Facebook advertising during the Alabama election season and that he bought some retweets to test his ability to “lift” social media messages.
Morgan characterized the work as a “small, limited research project on Facebook” while speculating that Project Birmingham as described in the debrief document was a combination of his efforts and those that might have been conducted by others. He described the Project Birmingham document as “AET’s report” — suggesting it had been a product of Dickerson’s start-up, American Engagement Technologies, also known as AET.
“I acknowledge working with AET, but I don’t recognize the claims they’re making now,” Morgan said on Medium. “We did not write the leaked report and we could not have because it didn’t reflect our research. The leaked version of the report made a number of claims that did not originate with us.”
Hoffman also has denied knowing about the operation in Alabama, though he has acknowledged providing the money to AET and apologized for his role in how it was eventually used.
“I find the tactics that have been recently reported highly disturbing,” Hoffman said in a statement. “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.”
Hoffman’s financial relationship with AET was brokered by his political adviser, Dmitri Mehlhorn, who heads a group called Investing in US that helps direct Silicon Valley money into left-leaning political causes.
Mehlhorn said he too was unaware of key details about Project Birmingham, but he defended the idea of learning from the Russian disinformation operatives at the Internet Research Agency, who backed Trump in the 2016 election and in his first year in the White House, according to U.S. officials.
“The Internet Research Agency engaged in many, many tactics, some of which I think it is appropriate for us to mirror and some of which I think we should disavow. The tactics they engaged in [that] we need to disavow [include] misinformation and promoting racial hatred,” Mehlhorn said. “The tactics we need to mirror are really good social microtargeting.”
Anger after losing in 2016
Project Birmingham had its roots in the anger and frustration Democrats felt after losing the White House and Congress in 2016 — with the assistance, many were convinced, of online disinformation peddled by Russians and also U.S. conservatives active on social media, who pushed damaging but false information about Democrat Hillary Clinton’s health, honesty and suitability for office.
One person who expressed a desire to fight back was Dickerson, according to social media researcher Renee DiResta, who met him at a conference in Chicago in the same month that Trump was inaugurated. Dickerson told her at the time about his desire to create a start-up to battle political disinformation, she said.
“There was a feeling after the Trump election that Democrats hadn’t prioritized tech, that Republicans had built this amazing juggernaut machine,” said DiResta. “The right wing was running a meme war, and there were these crazy dirty tricks. People wanted to build countermeasures.”
DiResta briefly advised AET, offering technical guidance and helping them meet potential supporters in the months before Hoffman agreed to fund the company.
DiResta, who also accepted a single share in AET and a seat on its board, said she became concerned with the opaqueness of the project, and severed ties with the company a few months after joining. She became research director at New Knowledge in January 2018 but said that, while she had heard of an experiment in Alabama, she did not know about the tactics.
'The shifting of votes'
While debate continues over who did what in Project Birmingham, The Post was able to find some evidence for several of the claims in the explanatory document.
The document, for example, says it “planted the idea that the Moore campaign was amplified on social media by a Russian botnet. We then tied that botnet to the Moore campaign digital director, making it appear as if he had purchased the accounts.” Morgan denied any knowledge of the incident involving Russian bots.
During the campaign, journalists wrote stories about Twitter accounts that appeared to be Russian followers of Moore.
Those accounts were later suspended by Twitter. The Post found an archived version of a misleading tweet and also several news reports and tweets by journalists during the Alabama election describing evidence that Russian bots were supporting Moore. The Project Birmingham document cited an article in the New York Post with the headline “Roy Moore flooded with fake Russian Twitter followers.”
Other journalists, however, expressed skepticism at the time, noting that the supposed Russian bots made obvious mistakes, leaving profile information in some tweets in Cyrillic, the Russian-language alphabet.
Evidence also supports the document’s claims about creating a conservative Facebook page to siphon support away from Moore. In a section headed “Splitting Republican votes,” the document says that a Facebook page created by Project Birmingham had contact with a Republican write-in candidate beginning on Nov. 18, 2017, and later endorsed this candidate, who was not named.
The description and timing fits the experience of Mac Watson, the owner of a patio supply store who ran a Republican write-in campaign and said he had communications with a Facebook page beginning on that date.
The document also describes Project Birmingham helping the unnamed write-in candidate gain new Twitter followers — something Watson recalls as well, with 10,000 suddenly appearing on his account. He also gained some exposure with the help of the operator of the Facebook page, which the document claims acted as a “media advisor” helping to arrange interviews with news organizations. The document included an image of a Dec. 5 Washington Post story on Watson. The author of that piece, David Weigel, said he does not recall anyone arranging interviews for his story.
Watson said that, in retrospect, the goals of the mysterious entity behind the Facebook page are now clear: “It was about the shifting of votes, to be honest with you,” he said.