Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said Thursday that his office is exploring whether disinformation tactics deployed against Republican Roy Moore during last year’s special election violated state campaign laws and said he was worried that the operation could have affected the closely fought Senate race.
“The information is concerning,” Marshall, a Republican, said in a phone interview. “The impact it had on the election is something that’s significant for us to explore, and we’ll go from there.”
Moore lost the election to Democrat Doug Jones.
Marshall, who said he learned of the disinformation campaign called Project Birmingham through news reports over the past two weeks, stopped short of announcing a formal investigation but said his office was beginning to gather information about the effort.
“We’re planning to explore the issue further,” Marshall said.
Jones on Thursday also reiterated his support for a federal investigation into the matter, days after the Alabama Democratic senator said that the Federal Election Commission and the Department of Justice should study the effects of disinformation on the race. Jones added he had directed his team “to prepare a formal request to file with the appropriate federal authorities who have jurisdiction.”
“Illegal influence operations are a serious threat to our democracy, regardless of where these activities originate or who they seek to support,” Jones said.
The FEC did not respond to a request for comment.
The looming threat of new state and federal investigations adds to the scrutiny facing those involved in the campaign to undermine support for Moore and bolster Jones. Project Birmingham appeared to broadly mirror some of the same tactics adopted by Russian operatives who spread social and political unrest on Facebook and Twitter during the 2016 presidential election. In Alabama, its backers even introduced fake evidence that automated Russian accounts, called bots, were supporting Moore in the race.
On Wednesday, internet billionaire Reid Hoffman apologized for giving money to a group, American Engagement Technologies, that allegedly had ties to Project Birmingham. The donation was $750,000, according to a person close to Hoffman. Hoffman said that he did not intend for the organization or its leader, a former aide to President Barack Obama, to put the money to use in spreading disinformation. Hoffman also pledged a full review of his portfolio of political investments, two years after he began spending millions of dollars to help elect more Democrats to office.
“I want to be unequivocal: there is absolutely no place in our democracy for manipulating facts or using falsehoods to gain political advantage," said Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn.
A spokesman for Hoffman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. Hoffman previously said it would be a “good idea” for investigators to probe what happened in Alabama. Hoffman’s political investments include a stable of entities that seek to target conservatives with political messages on Facebook, sources previously told The Washington Post.
Jonathon Morgan, chief executive of Texas-based research firm New Knowledge, has acknowledged being paid by American Engagement Technologies to experiment on a small scale with disinformation tactics, including creating a Facebook page that sought to appeal to Republicans who might not support Moore. Morgan has repeatedly denied that he attempted to affect the outcome of the election or that he had any role in the broader efforts of Project Birmingham. Facebook suspended his account as part of a crackdown earlier this month around “coordinated inauthentic activity” during the Alabama special election.
Morgan didn’t respond to a request for comment on Marshall’s actions in Alabama. Dmitri Mehlhorn, a political adviser for Hoffman, declined to comment. Moore, contacted through his former spokeswoman, did not respond.
Marshall said in the interview that the rapidly changing nature of campaigning on social media has made it difficult for authorities to know how to address disinformation tactics in elections.
“Technology has put us in a difficult position in many respects in terms of the applicability of our current laws,” Marshall said.