Following an investigation by the New York Times that revealed a group of researchers mirrored tactics used by the Russians to oppose Republican candidate Roy Moore in last year’s special election in Alabama, Facebook has reportedly closed the accounts of several individuals involved with the effort.
The Washington Post on Saturday identified one booted individual as Jonathon Morgan, the CEO of social media research firm New Knowledge. Morgan, whose firm was involved in producing a report for the Senate on Russian disinformation activity, was among those who participated in the shady tactics during Alabama’s Senate race. In a statement to Gizmodo by email, the company said that an investigation into the behavior is currently underway.
“We’ve recently removed five accounts run by multiple individuals for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook around the Alabama special election, and our investigation is ongoing,” a Facebook spokesperson said. “We take a strong stand against people or organizations that create networks of accounts to mislead others about who they are or what they’re doing. We’ve removed thousands of Pages, Groups, and accounts for this kind of behavior, as well as accounts that were violating our policies on spam and coordinated inauthentic behavior during the Alabama special election last year.”
The New York Times reported this week that it obtained an internal report on the secret disinformation project, which it said was spearheaded by Democratic tech experts. Posing as conservatives of Alabama on a fake Facebook page, participants in the project attempted to manipulate Republicans and yank votes from Moore, who narrowly lost the election to Doug Jones, a Democrat.
According to the Times, the effort “involved a scheme to link the Moore campaign to thousands of Russian accounts that suddenly began following the Republican candidate on Twitter, a development that drew national media attention.” Morgan defended the effort as a “small experiment” and “research project” aimed at better understanding disinformation campaigns.
While the Times noted that the project was most likely too small in scale to sway the election significantly, there is of course no way to know for certain.
Speaking with the Washington Post earlier this week, Morgan said the project “was like an, ‘Is it possible,’ small-scale, almost like a thought experiment.” He said that while the project seemed “innocuous” at the time, “a year later, with the benefit of history … maybe I would second-guess that decision now.”