Election Interference in the Alabama Senate Race Reveals Dark Side of Micro-Targeting

On December 11, 2017, Democrat Doug Jones made history as the first Alabama Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate in 20 years, narrowly defeating Republican Roy S. Moore. Although Moore’s loss was heavily attributed to accusations of his sexual misconduct with teenagers, media outlets later broke news that an additional factor—data manipulation by Democrats on two separate accounts—may have drawn votes away from the Republican candidate.

The most notable interference was a “secret project” orchestrated in part by New Knowledge, a Democratic cybersecurity organization that utilized social media to misrepresent Moore’s campaign. CEO Jonathon Morgan admitted he created a fake Facebook page, “Alabama Conservative Politics,” to polarize moderate and conservative Republicans through the sharing of divisive new stories and the endorsement of write-in candidate Mac Watson. Morgan denies  allegations of his involvement in the creation of thousands of bot accounts that followed Moore’s Twitter account to make the Republican campaign appear Russian-backed.  

The second account of misinformation was lead by Matt Osborne, a leading progressive Democrat who created a “Dry Alabama” Facebook and Twitter page and posed as conservatives advocating for complete alcohol prohibition in Alabama. Dry Alabama encouraged Roy Moore supporters to endorse its social media accounts, in an attempt to repel moderate conservatives from supporting a campaign that appeared associated with religious extremism.

In light of their revealed misconduct, the Democrats’ response was largely dismissal: Jonathon Morgan claimed it was a “research project... to reduce political polarization,” and mimicking Russian manipulation in the 2016 election was for experimental purposes only. Matt Osborne pointed a finger at Republicans who have used the same tactics to garner support for Trump, stating Democrats were only fighting fire with fire.

Both projects may have had a minor impact on the election results—considering each had a budget of $100,000 in a race where $51 million was spent—yet the larger implications threaten our democracy. Republicans and Democrats’ shift towards using big data to micro-target and pander to a specific demographic is not inherently unethical or illegal. However, the problem arises when individuals in that demographic’s  personal information is collected without consent and exploited to manipulate voters’ decisions. U.S. elections have become corrupt, with large populations of voters misguided by fraudulent social media accounts, fake news, and psychographic targeting. Popular sovereignty, consent of the governed cannot exist in our country when people are brainwashed into believing misinformation.

Another consequence of deceitful, micro-targeting is polarization of the electorate. When people are targeted through personalized political advertising they become more concerned with issues that pertain to their identity. Come election day, people will vote with their own demographics in mind, rather than considering the impact their vote will have on the entire country. The U.S. becomes a deficient democracy when laws and government officials are not representative of the majority of citizens, instead focusing solely on the population that elected them.

Election interference and deceitful micro-targeting via social media can no longer be defined solely as a foreign cybersecurity issue. These are highly prevalent domestic problems that have been exacerbated on both sides of the political spectrum. Republicans and Democrats alike need to take responsibility for their misuse of big data.

Ideally, Congress would take the initiative to address the precedent that Russian interference created. However, the reality is that constituents cannot rely on their representatives for solutions when they often lack basic understanding of social media and refuse to compromise in their technological arms race. We cannot wait for Federal Election Campaign laws to catch up with the digital age; the responsibility now lies on us, the public, to hold politicians and organizations accountable for their unethical election tactics. No longer can we be dismissive of our own party’s misconduct or diffuse blame onto the opposing party.

We must also be conscious of our own online echo chambers. Every person experiences deceitful micro-targeting to some degree and, therefore, must be critical of the information they consider to be fact. When we subscribe to news platforms aligned with our political or socioeconomic identities, we become more susceptible to to psychographic manipulation. Being a conscientious voter is not convenient; one must seek out a diversity of perspectives on events, policies, and candidates outside their immediate news sources. Yet, democracy is not designed to be convenient: it requires active, informed participation from all constituents.

ElectionRachel Barkin