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Researcher whose firm wrote report on Russian interference used questionable online tactics during Ala. Senate race

Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

A leading social media researcher whose firm wrote a major report on Russian disinformation for the Senate acknowledged Tuesday night that he engaged in misleading online tactics of his own during Alabama’s hotly contested special election last year.

Jonathon Morgan, chief executive of the research firm New Knowledge, said he created a Facebook page under false pretenses to test his ability to appeal to conservative voters and bought a small amount of retweets — spending less than $10 — to measure the potential “lift” he could achieve in social media messaging.

Morgan said that he took these actions in his own capacity as a researcher seeking to understand the mechanics of disinformation tactics, not as New Knowledge’s leader, and that neither tactic was intended to affect the outcome of the race between Republican Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones, who won the race and is now a U.S. senator.

New Knowledge anchored one of two comprehensive new reports on Russian disinformation released by the Senate Intelligence Committee this week. That report also had two other authors not affiliated with Morgan. The authors of the second report released by the committee this week have no affiliation with Morgan.

Of his actions, Morgan said, “This was like an, ‘Is it possible,’ small-scale, almost like a thought experiment.” Having long studied Russian disinformation, he said he wondered, “Is it as easy as it might seem?”

Morgan said Tuesday night that he was no longer fully comfortable with his actions from a year ago.

“At the time, it seemed kind of innocuous, and a year later, with the benefit of history … maybe I would second-guess that decision now,” Morgan said.

He said he chose to create a Facebook page for conservatives not for partisan reasons but because he was hoping to mimic existing disinformation operations, which have been more active in targeting conservative rather than liberal voters. Morgan said he did not recall the name of the Twitter account for which he bought retweets but said it was not a campaign or other explicitly political account.

Morgan also was among a team of researchers behind the Hamilton 68 dashboard, a project of the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy that seeks to track trends in Russian disinformation as it happens.