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Marshall to review if Senate social media scam violated law

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama’s attorney general said Thursday that his office is reviewing whether allegedly deceptive social media tactics used in last year’s U.S. Senate race might have violated the law.

Attorney General Steve Marshall told The Washington Post that reports about the effort are concerning. He said he wants to explore the issue, but stopped short of saying that his office is opening a formal investigation.

“The impact it had on the election is something that’s significant for us to explore, and we’ll go from there,” Marshall, a Republican, told the newspaper.

The Washington Post and New York Times reported that a social media researcher acknowledged testing misleading online tactics during Sen. Doug Jones’ 2017 campaign against Republican Roy Moore.

The newspapers said operators posed as conservative voters on a Facebook page and that Twitter accounts were used to make it appear that Russian bots were following Moore.

Rich Hobson, who was Moore’s campaign manager in the 2017 race, said the campaign reported concerns to social media platforms last year.

“We suspected that someone or some group was interfering and we complained to Facebook as early as June 2017,” Hobson told The Associated Press on Thursday.

It is unclear how far the effort reached.

Some news outlets reported last year about Moore’s campaign receiving a swell in Twitter followers with Russian names. The Moore campaign said at the time it had reported the matter to Twitter, and suggested political opponents were behind the matter and were trying to plant a negative story with media members.

Hobson said he could not recall the name of a Facebook page that raised concern.

The newspapers reported that Jonathon Morgan, chief executive of Texas-based research firm New Knowledge, acknowledged being paid by American Engagement Technologies to experiment on a small scale.

Morgan in a statement last week said his involvement was as a researcher with “the intention to better understand and report on the tactics and effects of social media disinformation.”

“I did not participate in any campaign to influence the public and any characterization to the contrary misrepresents the research goals, methods and outcomes of the project,” Morgan said in a statement.

The reports drew condemnation on both sides of the political aisle in Alabama, where Jones recently marked a year since becoming the first Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate from the state in a quarter-century.

Jones called for an investigation into the matter. He told reporters last week that his campaign didn’t know anything about the effort at the time. And Jones says he is “as outraged as everyone else” about the allegations.

Alabama Republican Party Chairwoman Terry Lathan called the revelation “deeply disturbing.”
Internet entrepreneur Reid Hoffman this week apologized for donations he made that he said unknowingly helped fund the effort.

“I categorically disavow the use of misinformation to sway an election,” Hoffman wrote.

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said Thursday that there were multiple concerns raised during the 2017 race about misleading social media tactics.

Merrill said it is clear that there needs to be “more policing done by the social media platform executives.”

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