Sen. Doug Jones on Thursday called for a federal probe into allegations that online disinformation tactics were used against his opponent during last year’s Alabama special election, which Jones narrowly won over Republican Roy Moore.
Jones (D-Ala.) compared the tactics to those deployed by Russia during and after the 2016 election.
“What is obvious now is that we have focused so much on Russia that we haven’t focused on the fact that people in this country could take the same playbook and do the same damn thing,” Jones said in a statement. “I’d like to see the Federal Election Commission and the Justice Department look at this to see if there were any laws being violated and, if there were, prosecute those responsible.”
The allegations stem from news reports, first in The Washington Post on Tuesday, in which researcher Jonathon Morgan acknowledged creating a misleading Facebook page targeting conservative voters in Alabama and also buying retweets to test his ability to provide “lift” for social media messages. Politico first reported on Jones’s comments.
Morgan is chief executive of New Knowledge, a Texas-based social media research firm that was lead author of one of two major reports for the Senate that showed Russian operatives took to nearly every major social media platform to stoke social and political unrest and push messages in support of then-candidate Donald Trump. Morgan said he acted in 2017 as a researcher, not in his capacity as head of New Knowledge, and that he had no intention of affecting the outcome of the Alabama election.
But the New York Times on Wednesday reported that Morgan had a role in a broader effort in Alabama that experimented with tactics for undermining Moore’s support through a variety of misleading online methods. These included supporting a Republican write-in candidate who challenged Moore and creating false evidence that automated Russian accounts, called bots, were backing Moore, a tactic that appears to have generated misleading news coverage during the election.
The tactics in broad terms resembled those used by the Russian disinformation teams at the Internet Research Agency, whose operations New Knowledge has been among the leaders in studying. It’s not clear what impact, if any, the disinformation tactics had in Alabama’s election.
Morgan has denied knowledge of or involvement in that broader effort. He said in a statement Thursday, “My involvement with the project described in the New York Times was as a cyber-security researcher and expert with the intention to better understand and report on the tactics and effects of social media disinformation. I did not participate in any campaign to influence the public and any characterization to the contrary misrepresents the research goals, methods and outcome of the project.”
Morgan told The Post that he created a Facebook page for conservatives because he was hoping to mimic existing disinformation operations, which have tended to be more active in targeting conservative voters. He said he did not recall the name of the Facebook page he created or the Twitter accounts for which he bought retweets.
The involvement of Morgan in questionable tactics has caused concern among fellow social media researchers, most of whom studiously avoid using the disinformation tactics they study — even on a small scale. Morgan was part of a research team that developed the Hamilton 68 Dashboard, a project of the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy that seeks to track trends in Russian disinformation.
Jones, meanwhile, said he “had no clue about this so-called experiment,” adding that the “bot-tracking software that we had during the campaign showed thousands of bots attacking me and none attacking anyone else. But be that as it may, we need to stop these tactics, regardless of where they come from.”
Moore’s former aides did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
It is not clear from the comments from Jones, a former federal prosecutor, what laws he believes might have been violated. Civil violations of federal election law are decided by the Federal Election Commission, while criminal ones are prosecuted by the Justice Department.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for the FEC said complaints regarding election law violations must be made in writing. A spokeswoman for Jones did not immediately reply whether the senator would follow up his comments with a written complaint.