A Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter spoke at a private gathering organized by a group that funded the secret effort to convince voters that the Russian government was supporting Alabama Republican Roy Moore in last year’s Senate election, according to a new report.
Scott Shane, the newspaper’s national security reporter, was one of the authors who broke the story that American Engagement Technologies, a firm run by former Obama appointee Mikey Dickerson and funded by Silicon Valley billionaire Reid Hoffman, spent $100,000 on a project aimed at emulating Russian disinformation tactics.
The participants in the project imitated conservative Alabamians on a Facebook page in a bid to prop up another non-Republican candidate and created thousands of fake Russian accounts on Twitter that began following Moore, giving the false impression Russia was backing Moore’s candidacy.
“We orchestrated an elaborate ‘false flag’ operation that planted the idea that the Moore campaign was amplified on social media by a Russian botnet,” the internal report of the secret project read.
"We orchestrated an elaborate ‘false flag’ operation that planted the idea that the Moore campaign was amplified on social media by a Russian botnet."
But the Times’ report didn’t mention that Shane learned of the efforts in the Alabama Senate race after attending a private gathering in September organized by the very same group that funded it, BuzzFeed reported.
The content of the private meeting raises questions about whether the project was as innocuous and merely an “experiment” as the Times and some participants have claimed, rather than a well-thought-out plan to sway the election to the Republican’s opponent -- now-Sen. Doug Jones.
Dickerson and Sara Hudson, a former Department of Justice employee who went on to work for another firm funded by Hoffman, spoke at the meeting about how using social media and ads on the Internet they managed to suppress Republican votes, energize Democratic voters and plant a “false flag” against the Republican campaign, the outlet reported.
The report that was provided to the New York Times reporter and others reportedly didn’t feature the word “experiment” and instead detailed its project with the seriousness of an actual political campaign effort to influence the election.
This comes in the wake of Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall saying his office is looking into the project. Though he didn’t call it an actual investigation, he expressed fears that the scheme could have swayed the election to the Democrat who won the election by 20,000 votes.
Hoffman, who gave $750,000 to AET, apologized on Wednesday for his role in the “highly disturbing” project.
“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,” he said in a statement provided to the Washington Post. “I want to be unequivocal: there is absolutely no place in our democracy for manipulating facts or using falsehoods to gain political advantage."