What influenced the election in Alabama

Copied Russian trolls on behalf of US Democrats

A sensational Democratic victory in Alabama is overshadowed by a scandal. An internet company used funds that it had copied from Russian trolls in the 2016 presidential election.

When the Democrat Doug Jones shed the Republican candidate Roy Moore in a replacement election for the Washington Senate in Alabama in December 2017lug, which was also strongly supported by President Donald Trump, many rightly spoke of a sensation. Another sensation had occurred a little more than a year earlier, in the presidential election of November 2016. As we now see, there is a parallel between the events. Obscure actors faked false identities on the Internet and tried to influence the election result. In 2016, Russian trolls were behind the deception. And 2017? Left activists.

Just an experiment

As early as mid-December, the New York Times reported that the cyber security company New Knowledge had played a key role in this. It is the same company that prepared a report for the Senate Intelligence Committee on Russia's social media influence operation. As the Times wrote at the time, the company wanted to try out techniques in the Alabama election campaign that it had copied from the Russians. Using false Twitter accounts, she gave the impression that the Republican candidate Moore was enjoying the support of Russian trolls - a real risk not only in the USA since November 2016. At that time, however, the whole thing was presented as an experiment. The head of the company denied in a written statement that attempts had been made to influence the outcome of the election.

On Monday, however, the "Times" duplicated: It reported on a second operation in which it was again faked on Facebook using false identities that Moore was supported by proponents of the total ban on alcohol (Prohibition) in Alabama. This was intended to drive a wedge into the republican ranks. The business-friendly wing of the party is opposed to prohibition. By placing Moore in the camp of the alcohol opponents, this wing should be motivated to vote for the Democratic challenger Jones or at least for third-party candidates.

In the meantime, the Washington Post had received a twelve-page document that was supposed to be a briefing of these covert operations by New Knowledge. The company concerned denies the process. However, the client, a former employee of the Obama administration, contradicted this representation. He claims to have learned from the newspaper report that false identities had been used. Even the financier, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur Reid Hoffman, head of the LinkedIn company, pleads for ignorance.

The troll campaign is referred to in the media report, alluding to the largest city in Alabama, as "Operation Birmingham". The aim was to influence the election with a targeted advertising campaign on Facebook for the attention of 650,000 likely voters. They wanted to cover up the fact that the creators of the campaign supported Jones.

The goal was to radicalize the Democrats, lower the turnout of Moore supporters and get moderate Republicans to put names of third party candidates on the ballot papers. The article also claims that "Operation Birmingham" provided the decisive impetus for Jones' very narrow election victory. With 1.34 million votes cast, the Democrat won by a good 20,000 votes. The number of votes for third-party candidates was actually slightly larger than the winner's lead. Jones said he was unaware of the operation and called for a federal investigation.

Political commentators doubt whether "Operation Birmingham" tipped the scales. Moore was a highly controversial candidate who had been deposed as judge twice for his Christian fundamentalism. He also had to contend with multiple and credible allegations that he had stalked underage women and girls when he was younger.

Same ells?

Yet the only honest answer to the question of whether the operation sealed Moore's defeat is that there is no certainty. For the Democrats, this is a disaster. Not only do they stand there as those who sacrificed their integrity for success even faster than the Republicans. You yourself tend to attribute Trump's narrow election victory in 2016 to Russian influence. The New Yorker won because he received 78,000 more votes than Hillary Clinton in the three states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. 136 million votes had been cast nationwide. But if the Russians made Trump's victory possible, why shouldn't "Operation Birmingham" have done the same for Jones?