Written by Scott Shane
Reid Hoffman, the tech billionaire whose money was spent on Russian-style social media deception in a Senate race last year, apologized Wednesday, saying in a statement that he had not approved the operation and did not support such tactics in US politics.
Hoffman said he had no idea that political operatives whose work he had financed had used fakery on Facebook and Twitter in the special Senate election a year ago in Alabama. But he had an obligation to track how his money was spent, he said, and he promised to exercise more care in the future.
“I categorically disavow the use of misinformation to sway an election,” said Hoffman, a co-founder of LinkedIn and a prominent figure at the intersection of Silicon Valley and Democratic politics. He said he had financed “organizations trying to re-establish civic, truth-focused discourse” and was “embarrassed” to learn his money had been spent on disinformation.
The New York Times and The Washington Post reported last week that $100,000 from Hoffman was spent on a deceptive social media campaign to aid Doug Jones, the Democratic candidate, who barely defeated the Republican, Roy Moore.
The money went to a small group of social media experts that included Jonathon Morgan, chief executive of New Knowledge, a cybersecurity firm.
They created a Facebook page intended to look like the work of conservative Alabamians, and used it to try to split Republicans and promote a conservative write-in candidate to take votes from Moore.
They also used thousands of Twitter accounts to make it appear as if automated Russian bot accounts were following and supporting Moore, according to an internal report on the project. The apparent Russian support for Moore drew broad news media coverage.
Democratic political strategists say the small Alabama operation — which accounts for a minuscule share of the $51 million spent in the contest — was carried out as a debate about tactics intensified within the party.
Democrats had been shocked to learn of Russia’s stealth influence campaign to damage Hillary Clinton and promote Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race. But at least a few Democrats thought their party could not shun such tactics entirely if others were going to continue to use them.
The Alabama operation is among the first examples to come to light of such underhanded methods on social media in U.S. politics. But because such efforts are generally very easy to hide and very difficult to trace, it is possible that other instances have gone undetected.
In 2017, through a fund called Investing in Us, Hoffman gave money to a small company, American Engagement Technologies. The company’s leader, Mikey Dickerson, is a former Google employee who founded the U.S. Digital Service during the Obama administration to try to upgrade the federal government’s use of technology. An associate of Hoffman’s said that his total grant to American Engagement was $750,000, which also went toward other political races and social media research. Dickerson has declined to comment.
American Engagement then passed $100,000 to Morgan and other researchers. Hoffman’s statement says the money went to Morgan’s company, New Knowledge, but Morgan said the Alabama project was carried out separately from the company.
The revelations of and fallout from the operation are being closely watched. Some U.S. political experts fear that the Russian influence campaign of 2016 could become a dangerous model for stateside politics, with dirty tricks on social media becoming common. Laws and regulations have not been updated to cope with such a threat.
On Saturday, Facebook shut down five accounts, belonging to Morgan and other unnamed individuals, in response to their use of “inauthentic” operations on the platform. Twitter declined to say whether it had taken any action in the Alabama case.
Jones and Democratic Party officials have said they were unaware of the social media tactics and denounced them. Jones has called for investigations by the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission — a call Hoffman joined Wednesday.
“We cannot permit dishonest campaign tactics to go unchecked in our democracy — no matter which side they purportedly help,” Hoffman said in his statement.