It turns out the Russians aren’t the only ones who know how to employ the Internet for political dirty tricks. As The New York Times reported in a front-page story on December 20, Russian bots were part of what the newspaper called a “secret experiment” in Alabama during the special Senate election won by Democrat Doug Jones in December 2017.
The tale involves a cyber-security firm that has played a role in hyping the claim that foreign intervention “influenced” the 2016 presidential election. It sought to duplicate the scheme in order to help Jones defeat Roy Moore. Although the Times dismisses the effort as “too small to have a significant impact on the race,” it acknowledged that the scheme, which involved fake Facebook and Twitter accounts, was patterned after the Russian meddling in American elections the year before.
The “false flag” accounts were intended to portray Republicans who were disgusted with Moore’s candidacy after the conservative gadfly was accused of inappropriately pursuing underage girls when he was a prosecutor in his 30s. The goal was to energize Democrats and depress GOP turnout.
Democrats Mimic Russian Tactics
What is most interesting about this “experiment” is that among its architects was the head of a firm that “wrote a scathing account of Russia’s social media operations in the 2016 election that was released this week by the Senate Intelligence Committee.” The Times obtained a report on the effort led by Jonathon Morgan of the New Knowledge cyber security firm. It detailed their efforts to mislead Alabama voters and thus aid Jones.
Both the Times and supporters of Jones are correct when they assert that this plot didn’t influence the outcome of the Alabama election even though the Democrat wound up winning by less than 22,000 votes out of more than 1.3 million votes cast. But there are two significant conclusions that can be drawn from the newspaper’s exhaustive account of the Democrats’ attempt to mimic Russian tactics.
First, the attempt to minimize the Alabama experiment’s effects while claiming that the larger-scale version of the plot was a major factor in allowing President Donald Trump to defeat Hillary Clinton simply falls flat.
The other is that the narrative being spread by the Democratic Party and the mainstream media, about Republicans being uniquely hostile to democracy and engaged in a consistent pattern of behavior involving elections cheating of one sort or another, is false. What happened in Alabama demonstrates that both parties are equally willing to do anything to unfairly hobble their opponents.
Clinton Was Her Own Worst Enemy, Not Russian Bots
The problem with many assumptions about 2016 is that there is no evidence significant numbers of voters were persuaded to think ill of Hillary Clinton only because of obscure posts by Russian bot accounts. Those false flag efforts were merely seconding the message voters got from many other sources that highlighted Clinton’s shortcomings, misleading statements about her emails, and other issues, including in many instances the mainstream media.
In an election where the outcome turned out to be close, one can always point to any issue or factor as decisive. But to believe that the leaking of Democratic National Committee Chair John Podesta’s emails — which had little or nothing that was damaging to Clinton’s reputation — obscured stories about the Access Hollywood tape in which Trump was heard boasting of what amounted to sexual assault is ludicrous.
Just as absurd is the notion that Russian bots persuaded voters to think ill of Clinton or, as another Times report published earlier in the week, persuaded African-American voters to stay home rather than turn out and vote for Democrats in the numbers they mustered in 2008 and 2012 when Barack Obama was on the ballot. It is interesting that the meddlers thought the black vote could be influenced in this manner.
But the Russians could have spent every dime they expended on their illegal efforts on a campaign focused on increasing black turnout for Clinton — a cause on which Democrats did spend vast sums — and it wouldn’t have re-created the excitement and pride Obama generated among African-Americans, or caused them to think it worth the effort to turn out simply because the former secretary of state was entitled to their votes.
Republicans Didn’t Need Twitter to Think Badly of Moore
The same point can be made about what happened in Alabama. Mainstream Republicans didn’t need fake Facebook or Twitter accounts to make them think ill of Moore, whom the party had always considered something of an embarrassment. The embrace of his candidacy by Breitbart.com helped him pull off an upset in the Republican primary over the lackluster GOP placeholder Luther Strange.
Despite his unpopularity outside of the GOP base, Moore would probably have beaten Jones in deep red Alabama. But once accusations of Moore’s misbehavior decades earlier surfaced, he was a lost cause irrespective of what either side was willing to do for or against him, as the president learned after he belatedly intervened in the election on the judge’s behalf.
As with Clinton’s problems, Moore’s travails were the subject of so much media coverage any money spent on trying to remind voters of them on social media was wasted. The key point here is that if you think bot accounts tweeting about Moore and teenage girls were not important, it’s hard to argue that the same tactic was somehow decisive a year earlier. Not does the scale of the expenditure work in favor of the case that the Russian meddling in 2016 mattered but the Democrats’ 2017 Alabama project did not.
Democrats Spent More than Russians Did
The Times reports that the Democrats spent only $100,000 on their effort to hobble a Republican candidate who had already done more to sabotage himself than his opponents could have dreamed. That is far less than what the Russians spent on their effort to sow discord in the presidential election.
The federal indictments of Russian agents obtained by Special Counsel Robert Mueller state their budget peaked at $1.25 million per month. This was money spent in a 50-state election with hundreds of media markets rather than one in a relatively small state with only a few major outlets. Seen in that light, the $100,000 Democrats deployed is not all that insignificant compared to what the Russians spent in the entire country on an election on which a total of $6.5 billion is estimated to have been spent.
The Alabama “experiment” is also one more reason to reject the prevailing narrative about Republicans having abandoned their belief in democracy in the age of Trump. Hard feelings about what happened in 2016, complaints about gerrymandering, and the shady tactics that may well have amounted to voter fraud in a North Carolina congressional race as well as votes by lame-duck legislatures in Wisconsin and Michigan to take powers away from governors in those states before Democrats take over in January have given credence to charges that the GOP is a party of cheaters.
But what happened in Alabama is evidence that Democrats are just as willing to stoop to dirty tricks if they think it will help them win. The same applies to a recent effort by the Democrat-controlled legislature in New Jersey to create a gerrymandering scheme that might have given them a permanent super-majority. We’d have to forget everything we’ve every learned about American political history or human nature to think that either Republicans or Democrats won’t try to steal elections if they think they can get away with it.
Russian meddling was outrageous and illegal, and the government should never let them get away with it again. But the only thing Hillary Clinton and Roy Moore have in common is that their personal flaws and political incompetence caused them to lose elections that seemed to be sure things. The Russians didn’t elect Donald Trump; the voters of the 30 states that rejected Clinton did that. The same can be said for the Democrats’ imitation of their tactics with respect to Moore.