Facebook Closes 5 Accounts Tied to Russia-Like Tactics in Alabama Senate Race

By Scott Shane

The group that carried out the operation, composed of tech specialists who leaned Democratic, created a Facebook page on which they posed as conservative Alabamians.CreditCreditAudra Melton for The New York Times

In an unusual move against Russian-style election deception inside the United States, Facebook said on Saturday it had removed five accounts of Americans who used its platform improperly in the hard-fought Alabama Senate election last year.

Among those whose accounts were removed was a prominent social media researcher who worked on the Alabama operation, Jonathon Morgan, according to a person briefed on the company’s action. Facebook did not name those whose accounts were closed, and it was not immediately possible to identify the others.

The company acted in response to reports in The New York Times, The Washington Post and other news outlets in recent days that a small group of social media experts had secretly used deceptive tactics in the Alabama race that were explicitly modeled on Russia’s meddling in the 2016 American presidential election. The group sought to split the conservative vote to undermine the Republican candidate, Roy S. Moore, and to boost support for the Democrat, Doug Jones, who won by a small margin.

Mr. Morgan has said the operation was an experiment to learn more about the kinds of methods Russia had used, and not to influence the outcome of the race. But the episode has sparked fears that the fraudulent Russian operations on social media could be imitated widely by American political operatives and further undermine voters’ ability to sort truth from fakery as they choose candidates.

The group that carried out the Alabama operation, composed of tech specialists who leaned Democratic, created a Facebook page on which they posed as conservative Alabamians. That page was shut down in 2017. They also used Twitter accounts that looked Russian — described as a “false flag” scheme in an internal report on the project — to create the impression that Russian accounts were following Mr. Moore.

Elections experts have said there was little chance that the $100,000 project could have had a significant impact on a race in which more than $50 million was spent, including in the primaries.

Jonathon Morgan, the chief executive of New Knowledge, a cybersecurity firm, said the operation in Alabama was intended to learn more about the kinds of methods Russia had used.CreditNew Knowldge

Nevertheless, Mr. Jones said on Friday he was “outraged” to learn of the project and called for an investigation by both the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission. There is no evidence that Mr. Jones, his campaign or Democratic Party officials knew about or encouraged the operation.

In a statement on Saturday, Facebook said it had shut down “five accounts run by multiple individuals for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook around the Alabama special election, and our investigation is ongoing. 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.”

The Washington Post first reported on the accounts’ removal on Saturday.

Facebook said it shuts down more than 1 million accounts each month worldwide for violating its rules. But for a researcher like Mr. Morgan, the chief executive of a cyber security firm based in Austin, Tex., called New Knowledge, the move is bound to be a stinging embarrassment. He did not reply to a request for comment on Saturday.

Mr. Morgan has been a leading voice against the kind of abuse carried out by Russia in 2016, when Russians posing as Americans on Facebook and other platforms attacked Hillary Clinton and promoted Donald J. Trump in the presidential race. In November, he was one of the authors of an op-ed article in The Times about continued Russian interference in the midterm elections.

In interviews with The Times this week, Mr. Morgan acknowledged his role in the secret Alabama operation on Facebook and Twitter but described it as a small experiment designed to understand such techniques.

The internal report on the project’s results, evidently prepared for those who financed it, stated in strong language that it was in fact intended to help Mr. Jones and hurt Mr. Moore and that its operators believed it had succeeded in doing so. The project was funded by Reid Hoffman, the billionaire co-founder of LinkedIn and a supporter of Democratic candidates, though a colleague of his said he did not approve of the use of deception on social media.

A Twitter spokeswoman citing users’ privacy, declined to say whether it had taken any action in response to the reports on the Alabama project.