Did progressive activists throw Alabama's 2017 special election for the US Senate using Facebook disinformation campaigns? That is the question people are asking today after the New York Times revealed another effort by freelance Democrats to persuade Republicans against voting for Roy Moore.
Last month, reporter Scott Shane stirred controversy when he disclosed that a company called New Knowledge had used false Facebook profiles to dabble in the race. Today, he reported on a second, unrelated effort that "underscores how dirty tricks on social media are creeping into American politics."
Full disclosure: it was my research which convinced fellow activists that "associating Mr. Moore with calls for a statewide alcohol ban would hurt him with moderate, business-oriented Republicans and assist the Democrat, Doug Jones, who won the special election by a hair-thin margin," in Mr. Shane's telling. (Here is my summary of that research.)
Indeed, my primary motivation for the 'Dry Alabama' project -- aside from keeping Roy Moore out of the United States Senate, of course -- was to run an experiment that might give us some actual data so we can all understand the issue of Facebook disinformation campaigns a little better.
Everyone now acknowledges that Russian social media disinformation campaigns took place in 2016. The only argument left today is how much they affected the outcome. American intelligence agencies have scrupulously avoided even examining the question. In the absence of information, each political clique has their own answer.
If you loathed Hillary Clinton or supported Donald Trump, then you may have an interest in denying that the Internet Research Agency had any impact at all, whereas if you were a Clinton partisan, it is too easy to pin all the blame for her loss on Russian election meddling without proof.
Put simply, our ignorance about the relative effectiveness of these campaigns has hindered us from having a rational public policy conversation about them. That situation has to change, and it will only change if we run experiments to gather data.
Ironically, a third team got the clearest measurements of their effectiveness -- and the numbers are jaw-dropping.
Operating independently of our group as well as New Knowledge, Tovo Labs "successfully drove up Democratic turnout and drove down Republican turnout in the districts we targeted," according to a post at Medium.com last April that got almost no attention until now.
Unlike our Facebook operation, which was better able to track reach than outcomes, Tovo Labs could determine that Democratic turnout was 3.9 percent higher and conservative Republican turnout 4.4 percent lower in the state senate districts they targeted.
"As opposed to the Cambridge Analytica efforts which made heavy use of false information and outright lies in their creative assets, we avoided such measures and stuck to legitimate material," Tovo Labs says. Instead, they targeted users with legitimate content, notably links to conservative thought leaders condemning Moore.
Similarly, the 'Dry Alabama' campaign used real quotes from allies of Moore, who is an outspoken teetotaler supported by anti-alcohol campaigners, to build the impression that a vote for Moore was a vote against beer.
We did not have to use any 'fake news' because there was so much real news to work with.
“I don’t think anything this group did crossed any lines,” says Beth Becker, one of the individuals who took part in the Dry Alabama campaign. In fact, we worked very hard to discern the legal lines and stay inside them.
Nevertheless, shortly after the story about New Knowledge broke in December, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshal declared that "his office is exploring whether disinformation tactics deployed against Republican Roy Moore during last year’s special election violated state campaign laws."
“The impact it had on the election is something that’s significant for us to explore, and we’ll go from there," Marshal told the Washington Post.
Doug Jones was outraged as well. He wants a federal investigation.
“It needs to not just be a congressional inquiry. People get called in front of Congress all the damn time. There needs to be a look to see if there were any laws that were broke,” Jones said, calling for the Department of Justice and the Federal Elections Commission to get involved.
Yet it is not obvious that any laws were actually broken. Neither Congress nor the Alabama legislature has shown much ability to write effective legislation in the social media era. From my perspective, the real 'crime' here is that political disinformation campaigns are not illegal.
The FEC has been so effectively neutered by libertarian activists that you can get away with almost anything via dark money nonprofits and Delaware corporations. Campaign finance laws are so weak that only the most egregious, obvious violations are ever prosecuted. The Supreme Court seems to think that lies are free speech.
As I told Scott Shane, in this environment “If you don’t do it, you’re fighting with one hand tied behind your back...You have a moral imperative to do this — to do whatever it takes.”
Sen. Jones has a very different point of view, of course, but it is not incompatible with my own. “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 after the New Knowledge story broke.
He's absolutely right about that: sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If we don't want a 'race to the bottom,' with social media disinformation campaigns perverting American democracy, then we must change the laws and regulate the platforms -- you know, the hard work we expect our elected officials to do on our behalf.