Free Minds & Free Markets

If You Want to See the Future of Political Trolling—and Elections—Look to Alabama

A second covert campaign against Judge Roy Moore is revealed, suggesting that voters need to up their media-literacy game, and fast.

Paul Hennessy/Polaris/NewscomPaul Hennessy/Polaris/NewscomIf the 2016 elections raised (unjustified) concerns that Russian hackers tipped the presidential race to Donald Trump, the special election in 2017 between Republican Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones suggests that the future of political messaging is going to be full of false-flag operations designed to dupe voters.

In December, The New York Times reported on a project in which activists created a Facebook page and posed as conservative Alabamians disgusted by Moore's alleged sexual misconduct toward underage and teenage girls. The idea was to use the page

to try to divide Republicans and even to endorse a write-in candidate to draw votes from Mr. Moore. It 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.

"We orchestrated an elaborate 'false flag' operation that planted the idea that the Moore campaign was amplified on social media by a Russian botnet," [an internal report says].

The larger goal, said the head of the project, was to "enrage and energize Democrats" and "depress turnout" on the other side of the aisle. The campaign was orchestrated in part by the group New Knowledge, which itself generated a widely discussed report for the U.S. Senate about the ways in which a Russian troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, attempted to influence the 2016 presidential election. Nobody thinks the Alabama effort, which had a $100,000 budget in a race that cost $51 million in total spending, had any impact.

Now the Times has revealed a second false-flag operation in Alabama. This one was also designed to weaken Roy Moore's support, but by suggesting that the vocal Christian wanted to bring alcohol prohibition back to the Alabama.

The "Dry Alabama" Facebook page, illustrated with stark images of car wrecks and videos of families ruined by drink, had a blunt message: Alcohol is the devil's work, and the state should ban it entirely.

Along with a companion Twitter feed, the Facebook page appeared to be the work of Baptist teetotalers who supported the Republican, Roy S. Moore, in the 2017 Alabama Senate race. "Pray for Roy Moore," one tweet exhorted.

In fact, the Dry Alabama campaign, not previously reported, was the stealth creation of progressive Democrats who were out to defeat Mr. Moore—the second such secret effort to be unmasked. In a political bank shot made in the last two weeks of the campaign, they thought associating Mr. Moore with calls for a statewide alcohol ban would hurt him with moderate, business-oriented Republicans and assist the Democrat, Doug Jones, who won the special election by a hair-thin margin.

More here. Observers say that there's no reason to believe that this campaign had any influence on the outcome of the election either.

But together, the two campaigns suggest the likely future of American politics in an age when many campaign-finance laws have been (rightly) struck down as unconstitutional, independent expenditures continue to grow, and, perhaps most important, social media and technology have created an unparalleled opportunity for more and more of us to create and distribute virtually whatever we want. "Deep fakes"—videos in which people's faces are swapped in almost undetectably onto other people's bodies—aren't just for porn. Last year, comedian Jordan Peele demonstrated just how easy and seamless deep fakes can be when he offered up the spectacle of former President Barack Obama calling Donald Trump "is a total and complete dipshit." (Watch that below.)

As Stewart Baker has noted at The Volokh Conspiracy, our world will soon (if it's not already) be "awash with fake revenge porn, fake human rights atrocities, and fake political scandals." There will be predictable attempts to shut down free speech in the name of preserving electoral integrity in ways that inevitably help incumbents or powerful interests, but digital culture has a way of routing around that sort of thing. Ultimately the only way forward—a way which is perfectly consonant with libertarian values of maximizing freedom and minimizing regulation—is for each of us as individuals to be constantly upping our media-literacy game while also devising new ways to authenticate and vet information sources. If online businesses and retailers have been able to squeeze down fraud, if email providers have mostly gotten rid of spam, and if journalistic outfits maintain readership based on the quality of their work, surely as a society we'll be able to deal with even super-smooth efforts by foreign and domestic agents trying to "hack" our elections through misinformation.

It won't be easy, or smooth, but it will also probably reveal which of us actually believe that people are smart enough to make decisions for themselves and which don't trust individuals to be in charge of their own lives.

Photo Credit: Paul Hennessy/Polaris/Newscom

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  • John||

    More here. Observers say that there's no reason to believe that this campaign had any influence on the outcome of the election either.

    The made up sexual abuse allegations are what tipped the election. Roy Moore was just a dry run for what they tried to do to Kavanaugh. The only thing that saved Kavanaugh was that he was such an insider. False accusations of rape is something that happens to deplorables not to guys who went to Georgetown Prep, Yale and worked for the Bush administration. Had Kavanaugh been from Tennessee and gone to Vanderbilt, they would have run him out on a rail just like they did Moore.

  • A Lady of Reason||

    The fiasco with Kavanaugh luckily made many walk away and show us all how low the Left would go to get their way...

  • JoeBlow123||

    I just did some quick math.

    2016 Presidential election cost: $2.6 billion
    Russian election meddling fund: $12 million

    12,000,000 / 2,600,000,000 = 0.00462% of total funds

    Alabama section cost: $51 million
    Democratic "experiment": $100,000

    100,000 / 51,000,000 = 0.00196% of total funds

    Result one: Investigations, Special Councils, batshit insanity calls from everywhere that our election was hacked

    Result two: Ehh, it was just an experiment. Not a biggie guys. Now about Russia...

  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    Your percentages are off by a factor of 100. Smell test: .1M is 1/500 of 51M, which is .002, or .2%. Similarly, 12M × 200 is 2600M, or roughly .5%.

  • BearOdinson||

    While he did make a very common error (forgetting that the decimal needs to be multiplied by a 100 to get a percent), it doesn't change his point. The "meddling" in each election compared to the total spent was on the same order of magnitude. But one created an amazing amount of hubbub, the other a yawn.

  • JoeBlow123||

    Man that was dumb. Thanks for point out my mistake.

  • Incomprehensible Bitching||

    Again, the horrendous conservatives ally with the Russians to commit fraud and assault our democracy: TREASON!

  • SIV||

    FAKE NEWS is media-literacy

  • A Lady of Reason||

    We must be empowered to spot the fake news and not be low-information voters! They think we're easily fooled, steered like sheeple, but we must not be if the country is to be sane again...

  • Benitacanova||


  • Rich||

    Campaign finance reform redux: Each candidate is allowed $50K from any source to run a website. The end.

  • Jerry B.||

    "Nobody thinks the Alabama effort, which had a $100,000 budget in a race that cost $51 million in total spending, had any impact."

    Please list the "Nobodies".

    Are they the same folks that think a few Russian Facebook posts won the 2016 election for Trump?

  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    This is the New York Times commenting on why a dastardly neo-nazi lost an election; of course the Democratic fake news had no effect.

  • Jerry B.||


    The author of the article wrote the quote above, and in another place in the same article said, "Observers say that there's no reason to believe that this campaign had any influence on the outcome of the election either."

    So who the heck are the "nobodies" and "observers" Mr. Gillespie is citing?

  • Brett Bellmore||

    Heck, at this point we don't even know how many of the "few Russian Facebook posts" actually originated with Russia; The people doing the job on Moore have apparently been doing false front posts, trying to look like they originated in Russia.

  • Jerryskids||

    So Harry Reid was just a little ahead of his time in claiming Mitt Romney paid no taxes for ten years because he had to make the claim himself instead of citing a "Concerned Citizens" Facebook page he started as the source of his claim. You know, the way the Russian Dossier deal worked, with Steele getting friendly journalists to write stories on his bullshit claims and then using those stories as evidence for his claims to the FBI and the newspapers citing the FBI investigation as evidence for Steele's veracity.

  • Jerryskids||

    Or the way CNN reports "multiple independent sources" when they're citing the WaPo, NYT and anonymous sources when the WaPo report is simply reporting on what the NYT reported and what the NYT is reporting is what anonymous sources reported. No, Chris, that's not "multiple independent sources", it's all the same source.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Or the way CNN reports "multiple independent sources" when they're citing the WaPo, NYT and anonymous sources when the WaPo report is simply reporting on what the NYT reported and what the NYT is reporting is what anonymous sources reported.

    I believe this pretty much the textbook example of a circle jerk if I ever saw one. And they do it all the time, all while wondering why so few people actually people actually believe their bullshit.

  • Stephdumas||

    Speaking of Harry Reid. I wonder how he might react if we troll him with some politically incorrect comments like this one: "Hey Harry, if you had let Mitt Romney won in 2012, so Mitt could had lost against Hillary in 2016 but no, you got Obama re-elected and we elected Trump!"? With his declining health, he wouldn't take it that very well.

  • David1234||

    Does Reid care about grammar? I'm healthy and the innovative verb tenses are almost killing me.

  • Eddy||

    "upping our media-literacy game"

    Hey, I'm upping my media-literacy game, so up yours.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Without these false flag operations, Gary Johnson would have...well, he still would have lost.

  • BYODB||

    Gary is just disappointed that no one bothered to false flag him.

  • Ken Shultz||

    There is no excellent substitute for critical thinking.

    There never has been, and there never will be.

    I'm also not convinced that there is more of this than there used to be. It's just that nowadays, it's easier to catch!

    It used to be that most cities had one or two newspapers, and three radio and television networks--all of which mostly reported the same crap. They were all trying to be the news source for everybody, regardless of political persuasion, and it meant that we mostly heard the same news from the same sources all the time.

    Millennials can't remember what it was like when being knowledgeable was important. It used to be that if you wanted to criticize or check something that the newspaper, television, radio, or drunken idiot in the bar said, you had to go to a library somewhere or already be knowledgeable. Now that people can check what's being said with a device in their pocket, we're much more apt to catch bullshit than we ever did before. I really believe that things are better now in terms of accurate news than they were back then. It's just that nowadays people find out when someone is full of shit. In the past, they used to get away with it.

  • Ken Shultz||

    P.S. I suspect plagiarism used to be more common, too. Before the internet, to know that you plagiarized something, somebody would have to physically read both things and care enough to report it to the person who wrote it.

    They used to sell term papers by mail in the back of Rolling Stone!

    Now a simple Google search will show everything you ever plagiarized. Our elders were not better than we are. They just regularly got away with murder.

  • JFree||

    This is more than a bit circular.

    Plagiarism mostly involves finding someone else's thoughts to copy without attribution. Back in the day when that actually involved going to the library and looking at individual sources of possibly relevant info via maybe an index within a book, it was just as easy to simply footnote that source rather than try to pretend that gem is yours.

    Term papers purchased (unread - since those folks didn't give refunds if it turned out to be crap) from an ad in Rolling Stone were as credible as drawing school degrees purchased from ads in the back of comic books.

    It is MUCH easier to plagiarize something now. idk whether students are plagiarizing more now but it is obviously easier to do so. What has definitely changed - and mostly in the last 15 years or so - is that people's BS detectors have stopped working. It's not even so much that we've lost our skepticism re what we hear. It's that we have no effing clue what skepticism even IS anymore. And it is older folks who seem to imo have the biggest problem there. idk what it is - maybe that for the first time in their life they can easily find something that confirms their preexisting biases so they jump all over that

  • EscherEnigma||

    Ultimately the only way forward [...] is for each of us as individuals to be constantly upping our media-literacy game while also devising new ways to authenticate and vet information sources.

    Yeah, no.

    Individual eternal vigilance is impossible and any plan that relies on it is doomed to failure. Humans, as a group, just aren't capable of it. That's why we've always divided such "vigilance" tasks up to some members of the group so that other members can take a break. This applies whether we're literally talking about guards at the gate, or more abstract "guards" at "information gates". Quite simply, individual constant vigilance just isn't sustainable.

    So if that's your plan, we've already lost.

  • A Thinking Mind||

    And yet everyone needs to be an information guardian to themselves, with the willingness to question the things they read even if they agree with argument being made. Always be a little skeptical, and if something seems quite outrageous, do just a cursory check to see if there might be some issues with where the data comes from or how it's being framed.

  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    It's called adaption. People adjust to everything new, it just takes time. Look how quickly people adapted to cars and airplanes, telephones, radio, TV, computers, the internet.

    This is all a tempest in a teacup.

  • John||

    Just like political TV ads are no longer effective because no one believes them or pays attention to them, these sorts of efforts will eventually meet the same fate.

  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    About the same time Congress tries to gut the First Amendment and proclaims success.

  • JFree||

    Political ads are VERY effective now - and increasingly so. And they will get more effective over time.

    You seem to be judging their effectiveness on some quaint 19th century notion of their rationality or appeal to the individual or somesuch. That is not what advertising or public relations have been since the 1920's. Mass communications depends on treating us AS a mass (not as individuals) - using an ever-increasing knowledge of how our brains work - and triggering those parts of the brain that we do not even know how to assess using the other parts of our brain.

    The only chance they will become less effective over time is if the human/animal brain actually starts evolving faster than our knowledge of the human/animal brain progresses. Because let me assure you - those ads are leveraging that knowledge so that we can be manipulated as a mass.

  • JoeBlow123||

    "At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has been sometimes disastrous."
    Lord Acton, 1877

    15 points to whoever knows where I lifted this quote from.

  • David1234||

    This quotation is obviously from Lord Acton's essay "The History of Freedom in Antiquity," originally an address delivered at the Bridgenorth Institute.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    if email providers have mostly gotten rid of spam

    Based on my experience with my hotmail account, they haven't. Even spambots that I've added to the blocked list still sometimes get through the filter.

  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    About ten years ago, my home email server was receiving around 400K spam a day, with peaks of 1M. It is down to under 200 a day now. That's a factor of 1000 less.

    Spam has gone way down.

  • Dillinger||

    >>>which of us actually believe that people are smart enough to make decisions for themselves and which don't trust individuals to be in charge of their own lives

    doesn't matter. anyone with elected power becomes all-knowing for us.

  • Uncle Jay||

    There wouldn't be any political trolling if this was a true socialist slave state.
    Maybe if we can Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in power somehow, some way, then all this endless discussion of politics would be finally be at an end...along with gun ownership, private property, capitalism, and a host of other nefarious ideals.
    We can only hope and pray.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Does this mean that Hillary gets to be president now?

  • Demosthenes of Athens||

    Ahhh, trolling. Fantastic, fantastic trolling.

    Anyone remember #draftourdaugthers? I do. It was glorious.

  • Overt||

    I am still unconvinced that this is really a problem. People are biased, and they will always be biased. They seek out and rally around information that already confirms their biases and disregard or discredit information that challenges the bias. The Internet has merely added fuel to the fire by giving people more of the information they seek.

    I don't see these fake sites truly doing anything other than confirming peoples' biases. You would need to provide some hard evidence other than "Followers" to show that this was truly moving the needle.

  • Longtobefree||

    I guess the concepts of rational thought, named, verifiable, confirmed sources, and not believing the internet are beyond expectation?
    Maybe instead of guns, we should ban cell phones? And consider PCs to be assault liars?

  • Echospinner||

    Critical thinking is learned. Generally it is learned the hard way.

    Universities used to be a way to expand those skills. It did not matter what conclusions you reached in the term paper. So long as it was supported and presented properly you could get that grade. By the time of graduation with an undergrad degree, I had both science and humanities, you were expected to be able to find and analyze information by yourself.

    Now it seems that you just need your make the right conclusions as predetermined.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "interference in elections"

  • Al_Ukash||

    Blcokchain technology will help with this. Verified sources and chainlink sensors that imprint with the time and place, etc. Just one of many crucial things that needs to be developed.

  • Longtobefree||

    I have not worked with small computers all that much; can spell checkers be incorporated into blockchain technology? And is blockchain such that certain 'ladies' can be detected and, shall we say, blocked?
    And most importantly, can an edit function be added?

  • vek||

    Yeah, the entirety of his sexual misconduct was what was the real scandal. Anybody wonder why all these accusations always just seem to disappear into thin air the 2nd somebody either wins or loses an election?

    The Dems play 100 times dirties than the Rs ever have... This is why they've been slowly taking over and ruining the country. It's time to fight dirty back IMO.

  • David1234||

    In the future, political opponents will lie about each other?


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