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How 'Project Birmingham' Spread Misinformation In The 2017 Alabama Senate Election


It was a stunning upset in a deeply red state. Democrat Doug Jones beat his Republican opponent, Roy Moore, in the 2017 Alabama Senate race, a special election held to fill former Attorney General Jeff Sessions' seat. The contest drew national attention after Republican candidate Roy Moore was accused of sexual assault and misconduct with teenage girls. Now, reporting following the race has focused on the controversial strategy used by one pro-Jones group called Project Birmingham.

The Washington Post's Craig Timberg has been looking into this. He joins me now. Welcome to the program.


CORNISH: In a nutshell, can you describe exactly what is Project Birmingham?

TIMBERG: This was a disinformation campaign that really resembled some of the tactics that were used by the Russians in 2016 involving fake Facebook messages. Twitter was used as well. And the idea was to undermine the support for Roy Moore and to bolster the support for Doug Jones using social media in a way that was, frankly, quite deceptive.

CORNISH: Can you give a description of the more controversial approaches that the group allegedly used?

TIMBERG: So the definitive account of this, at least as far as we've been able to turn up, is a document that was handed out at a secret meeting here in Washington back in September. And what they were trying to do is figure out, you know, what would make people vote either for Jones or against Roy Moore? For example, arguably the most controversial tactic that's in the document speaks about creating fake evidence - what they call a false flag - that Russian bots were supporting Roy Moore.

So they put out some sort of hints about this on Twitter. There are some tweets out there that have Cyrillic characters - the Russian language - suggesting that they were Russian, and then it was spread around. It actually generated some headlines at the time. A couple of news organizations bit on this and reported that Roy Moore was being supported by Russian bots.

CORNISH: As this reporting has come out, what have we learned about any kind of relationship between this group and the Jones campaign or Democrats in Alabama?

TIMBERG: There's no evidence of a relationship with Senator Jones or, really, with any Democrats in Alabama that would be found. What we do know is that the money for this - about a hundred thousand dollars - came from the Internet billionaire Reid Hoffman. He, like the other people who have any affiliation with this, say they had no idea that his money was being used in this way.

The other key actors are a Democratic operative here in Washington named Mikey Dickerson. He is best known for fixing the web portal. He also says that he didn't know what was going on. And then there is a security company called New Knowledge based down in Texas. And they've acknowledged some limited experimentation with these kinds of tactics but says that they didn't do the stuff that's described in the document that we have.

CORNISH: All of these guys, though, are saying, look, I didn't know where the money was going. I didn't know what was going on. Does that sound realistic?

TIMBERG: Well, it certainly seems like somebody isn't telling the truth. It's very hard to square the various denials we've gotten from the people who acknowledged playing some kind of role in this with the denials of the other people who have acknowledged playing a role in this. There's been a lot of finger-pointing. There's been a lot of - let's just say lack of clarity about who did what. It's clear nobody wants to own Project Birmingham at this point.

CORNISH: Is there any way to know what kind of effect it had on the election? I mean, that race in particular, given the allegations about Roy Moore, had a lot going on.

TIMBERG: Indeed. And as political scientists have pointed out to us, Roy Moore was an incredibly well-known character with some incredibly well-known weaknesses as a candidate. It's clear that whoever, you know, was pushing Project Birmingham was attempting to push on those issues. They talk about - in the document - trying to provoke disgust among evangelical Christians, for example, over those allegations of sexual misconduct.

But in the end, we don't know what effect it had in the same way we don't really know what effect the Russian disinformation had in 2016. There's no way to run these elections again. And that's what's so troubling in a way, right? Like, once it's happened, how do we keep it from happening again?

CORNISH: Craig Timberg covers technology for The Washington Post. Thank you for sharing your reporting with us.

TIMBERG: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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