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Internet billionaire Reid Hoffman apologizes for funding a group tied to disinformation in Alabama race

LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman in San Francisco last year. (Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images for LinkedIn)

Internet billionaire Reid Hoffman apologized on Wednesday for funding a group linked to a “highly disturbing” effort that spread disinformation during last year’s Alabama special election for U.S. Senate, but said he was not aware that his money was being used for this purpose.

Hoffman’s statement is his first acknowledgement of his ties to a campaign that adopted tactics similar to those deployed by Russian operatives during the 2016 presidential election. In Alabama, the Hoffman-funded group allegedly used Facebook and Twitter to undermine support for Republican Roy Moore and boost Democrat Doug Jones, who narrowly won the race. Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn and an early Facebook investor, also expressed support for a federal investigation into what happened, echoing Jones’s position from last week.

The Alabama effort was one of a series of multi-million-dollar expenditures that Hoffman made to dozens of left-leaning groups in the aftermath of the 2016 election, when he offered himself to reeling Democrats as a source of money, connections and Silicon Valley-style disruption to the staid world of party politics.

Hoffman invested $750,000 in one group, American Engagement Technologies, or AET, according to a person close to the matter but not authorized to discuss Hoffman’s spending. Hoffman’s statement Wednesday referred to AET, which has been linked to a campaign to spread disinformation targeting Moore.

But the statement left key facts unaddressed, including a full accounting of everyone who crafted and executed the campaign. The effort was the subject of a presentation in September to a group of liberal-leaning technology experts who met in downtown Washington to discuss electoral tactics, according to one of the attendees and documents from the meeting obtained by The Washington Post. This person spoke on the condition of anonymity because those at the gathering were required to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Hoffman said in the statement, “I find the tactics that have been recently reported highly disturbing. 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.”

The head of AET, former Obama administration official and Google engineer Mikey Dickerson, has not responded to numerous requests for comment.

Hoffman's public apology follows news reports on the effort, known as Project Birmingham, which involved the creation of misleading Facebook pages to persuade Alabama conservatives to vote for somebody other than Moore.

One Project Birmingham tactic described in the document claimed backers had created false online evidence that a network of Russian automated accounts, called bots, were supporting Moore. In his statement, Hoffman called this report “the most disturbing aspect” of the disinformation effort. This and some other key details were first reported in the New York Times.

Hoffman’s statement said AET had provided funding for New Knowledge, a Texas-based research firm, whose chief executive, Jonathon Morgan, has acknowledged using disinformation tactics on a small scale in the Alabama election for a research project. Morgan has repeatedly denied involvement in the broader effort described in news reports.

Morgan said Wednesday that he wasn’t aware that the funding for the work in Alabama, which he portrayed as for research purposes, came from Hoffman. “I can’t object strongly enough to the characterization that we were trying to influence an election in any way,” Morgan said.

Facebook suspended Morgan and other individuals on Saturday for violating its policies against “coordinated inauthentic” behavior during the 2017 Alabama election.

In his statement, Hoffman sought to distance himself from misleading online tactics, saying, “I want to be unequivocal: there is absolutely no place in our democracy for manipulating facts or using falsehoods to gain political advantage.” Along with donations to party candidates, Hoffman said he has backed “dozens of organizations.”

Hoffman coordinated many of his investments with Investing in US, a group led by Dmitri Mehlhorn, Hoffman’s longtime top political advisor. Mehlhorn said on Wednesday he was “not aware of Project Birmingham.”

Mehlhorn previously acknowledged a willingness to experiment with some tactics honed by the Internet Research Agency, the Russian disinformation operation charged with U.S. officials with several crimes for meddling in the U.S. election.

“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 last week. “The tactics we need to mirror are really good social microtargeting.”

At a Washington Post Live event, Senators Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Angus King (I-Maine) discussed the role of social media in the Russia disinformation campaign. (Video: The Washington Post)

Throughout the 2018 election season, Hoffman directed his cash toward other organizations that aimed to target conservatives on Facebook. These groups created pages and purchased ads on the social-networking site with the goal of trying to “appeal to the center right” of the political spectrum, Mehlhorn said. They sought to get those users’ attention on topics including patriotism and sports, then presented them with real political news stories and policy-focused ads.

Central to that effort was News for Democracy, which received money from Hoffman, according to a person with knowledge of the investment but not authorized to speak on the record. Over the past year, it created or promoted Facebook pages including “Sounds Like Tennessee,” the person said.

The Facebook page appeared to be about sharing news about college football and local hunters. But it also bought at least one ad that criticized since-elected GOP Sen. Marsha Blackburn for her record on opioid abuse, according to Facebook’s ad archive.

In total, News for Democracy had vast reach: Its ads garnered at least 16 million impressions on Facebook over a two-week period in September, according to researchers at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering.

The organization is not required to reveal its donors, and Hoffman declined to comment through an aide. Hoffman's top political advisor, Mehlhorn, said he sits on the group’s board of directors and that Investing in US has pitched it as a potential place for Democratic donors to direct their support.

“Social media tends to drive people into hyper partisan camps,” said Dan Fletcher, a co-founder of MotiveAI, another Hoffman-backed startup that sought to target political messages to voters on Facebook. “Part of what we’ve tried to figure out is whether there’s a way you can reach people with facts that stretch beyond just a left versus right dichotomy.”