Good stories are like London buses. You can wait ages for one to come along, and then you get two or three all at once. Yesterday, we had the result of the inquest into the death of Alexander Perepilichny. Today, among others, we have a stunner of a story out of Alabama. The former undermined conspiracy theories about a supposed campaign of international murder led by Vladimir Putin. The latter reveals a conspiracy nobody so far had even theorized about. But it turns out that it’s not Russians doing the conspiring. Instead, it’s Americans pretending to be Russians in order to create the impression that there’s a Russian conspiracy where in fact there isn’t. Confused? Don’t worry, it will soon become clear.
In general, when I see the words ‘false flag operation’, I tend to roll my eyes and wonder what crazy nonsense is about to follow. In my opinion, false flag operations are quite rare. What’s even rarer is for somebody to admit to one. But, according to the New York Times, that’s exactly what the American cyber security firm New Knowledge has done in an internal report. The name New Knowledge may not mean much to you all, but if you follow Russia-related news you are no doubt aware of two reports released by the US Senate this week which purport to show the extent of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election via social media. New Knowledge wrote one of these. What the organization did not say in its report to the Senate, however, was that New Knowledge itself had been engaged in electoral ‘interference’ of a thoroughly dodgy kind.
In 2017, there was a special election to fill a vacant Senate seat in Alabama. The main contenders were Republic candidate Roy Moore and Democratic candidate Doug Jones, the latter of whom won by a margin of just under 22,000 votes. It now turns out that New Knowledge played a part in Jones’s victory. According to the report revealed by the New York Times, New Knowledge admits that:
We orchestrated an elaborate ‘false flag’ operation that planted the idea that the Moore campaign was amplified on social media by a Russian botnet.
The New York Times states that this plan ‘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.’ These ‘Russian accounts’ were, however, nothing of the sort; they were false flags, designed to make it look as though the Russians were backing Mr Moore, thereby discrediting him and energizing his Democratic opponents. The ruse worked. American media picked up on the story that Russian social media bots were campaigning on behalf of Roy Moore, and spread the lie further. The New York Post, for instance, published an article entitled ‘Roy Moore flooded with fake Russian Twitter followers’. As it turns out, this headline was inadvertently true – the Russian Twitter followers were indeed ‘fake’, just not in the way that the Post understood it.
According to the New York Times, the false flag operation in Alabama cost about $100,000 dollars. It cites one Democratic operative as saying that it was ‘impossible that a $100,000 operation had an impact on the race’. The Alabama campaign cost about $51 million. By contrast, the 2016 presidential campaign cost around $6.4 billion. That’s 127 times as much, meaning that the equivalent to the $100,000 spent by New Knowledge in Alabama would be $12.7 million. I’ve seen various estimates as to the amount spent by the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) prior to the 2016 presidential election, but none come close to $12.7 million. For instance, the IRA is said to have spent $47,000 on Facebook advertisements (compared to $81 million spent by the Clinton and Trump campaign). Add in some more money spent on Twitter and other platforms, and it’s still not a massive expenditure. Yet somehow, it’s regarded as decisive in the way that the proportionally much larger $100,000 spent on the Senate campaign was not. One may be excused a little scepticism.
To summarise, what we have here are some Americans pretending to be Russians pretending to be Americans, with the aim of smearing a political candidate with what they knew to be a false accusation. And yet we are meant to trust these same people as neutral reporters on the matter of Russian ‘meddling’ in American democracy. It strikes me that they have something of a credibility problem.
There is, of course, a lot of nonsense on social media, some of it just the outpourings of deluded individuals, and some of it the automated products of so-called ‘troll factories’. Unfortunately, the lead in combatting this (in my mind, much exaggerated) problem has been taken by highly partisan actors who are themselves less than trustworthy. New Knowledge is one example. The Integrity Initiative in the UK is another. So too are the numerous reports about Russian information warfare produced by organizations such as the Institute of Modern Russia and the Centre for European Policy Analysis, as well as the books churned out by Luke Harding, Timothy Snyder, and others, all of whom spread fear of Russian disinformation while presenting a very odd version of reality themselves. In the case of New Knowledge, they even admit to deliberately deceiving American voters. As so often, those claiming to protect us against external enemies in fact threaten us more than the alleged enemies themselves.