Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Matt Osborne, a left-leaning activist from Florence, AL, tried to boost Doug Jones in Senate race by falsely suggesting Roy Moore wanted a statewide alcohol ban

Matt Osborne
A left-leaning political operative was part of a project to boost Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama's 2017 U.S. Senate election by concocting a social-media campaign that suggested Republican Roy Moore favored a statewide alcohol ban, according to a report yesterday at The New York Times.

The campaign, called "Dry Alabama," is the second Russia-style disinformation effort that might have helped Jones beat Moore in a tight race. It is the first such effort to be tied to an Alabama political operative, meaning the public might now be less inclined to believe Jones' claim that he was unaware of any digital skulduggery on his behalf.

The Dry Alabama story hits close to home because I've known one of its central figures, Florence-based writer and activist Matt Osborne, for close to 10 years. I've never met Osborne in person, but he has been in our home, under trying circumstances. About a week after my arrest in October 2013, Osborne contacted my wife, Carol, and came to our house (with a female companion named Melissa Brewer) and took photos and videos of the area in our basement where a Shelby County deputy named Chris Blevins beat me up and essentially kidnapped me by hauling me to jail for a five-month stay -- all with no mention of a warrant, any criminal charges, or his reason for being on our property, not to mention inside our home.

In October 2017, less than two months before the Jones-Moore election, Osborne contacted me via Facebook messenger and indicated he was connected to the Jones campaign -- and that I should retract a post I had written about the race. I did not retract the post, and it now appears Osborne was less-than-honest with me. Going back to read that communication today -- after reading The Times' report on Dry Alabama -- it's hard to believe Doug Jones did not know what Osborne and Co. were up to with their online schemes. (More about my communications with Matt Osborne, and his visit to our house, in upcoming posts.)

Osborne, who describes himself as a "writer, researcher, moving into the consultant space," acknowledged to The Times that he participated in Dry Alabama:

Matt Osborne, a veteran progressive activist who worked on the project, said he hoped that such deceptive tactics would someday be banned from American politics. But in the meantime, he said, he believes that Republicans are using such trickery and that Democrats cannot unilaterally give it up.

“If you don’t do it, you’re fighting with one hand tied behind your back,” said Mr. Osborne, a writer and consultant who lives outside Florence, Ala. “You have a moral imperative to do this — to do whatever it takes.”

Osborne has written for a number of progressive Web sites -- Crooks and Liars, Breitbart Unmasked, Deep State Nation, and his own Osborne Ink, among others. In a dubious example of journalism, which some might label self-serving propaganda, Osborne wrote a piece at Crooks and Liars yesterday on the Dry Alabama effort, claiming his actions were not unlawful. From the article, titled "Swinging a US Senate Race in Alabama, Kremlin-Style Isn't Illegal, But It Should Be,"  which Osborne wrote himself:

. . . the 'Dry Alabama' campaign used real quotes from allies of Moore, who is an outspoken teetotaler supported by anti-alcohol campaigners, to build the impression that a vote for Moore was a vote against beer. We did not have to use any 'fake news' because there was so much real news to work with.

“I don’t think anything this group did crossed any lines,” says Beth Becker, one of the individuals who took part in the Dry Alabama campaign. In fact, we worked very hard to discern the legal lines and stay inside them. . . ."

Yet it is not obvious that any laws were actually broken. Neither Congress nor the Alabama legislature has shown much ability to write effective legislation in the social media era. From my perspective, the real 'crime' here is that political disinformation campaigns are not illegal.

Political disinformation campaigns are not illegal? There does not appear to be universal agreement on that.  Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall has asked the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to investigate the matter and determine if any federal laws were broken. Doug Jones himself has called for an inquiry that goes beyond Congress, straight to the FEC and the U.S. Justice Department.

Where is this story headed? That's hard to say because it seems to be evolving by the day. From The New York Times report:

The discovery of Dry Alabama, the second so-called false flag operation by Democrats in the fiercely contested Alabama race, underscores how dirty tricks on social media are creeping into American politics. The New York Times reported last month on a separate project that used its own bogus conservative Facebook page and sent a horde of Russian-looking Twitter accounts to follow Mr. Moore’s to make it appear as if he enjoyed Russian support.

The revelations about the first project, run in part by a cyber-security company called New Knowledge, led Facebook to shut down five accounts that it said had violated its rules, and prompted Senator Jones to call for a federal investigation. There is no evidence that Mr. Jones encouraged or knew of either of the deceptive social media projects. His spokeswoman, Heather Fluit, said his legal advisers were preparing to file a formal complaint with the Federal Election Commission.

Consider this section from The Times' report, which raises all kinds of questions:

The first of the Alabama efforts was funded by Reid Hoffman, the billionaire co-founder of LinkedIn, who apologized and said he had been unaware of the project and did not approve of the underhanded methods. The second was funded by two Virginia donors who wanted to defeat Mr. Moore — a former judge accused of pursuing sexual relationships with underage girls — according to a participant who would speak about the secret project only on the condition of anonymity and who declined to name the funders.
Doug Jones
The two projects each received $100,000, funneled in both cases through the same organization: Investing in Us, which finances political operations in support of progressive causes. Dmitri Mehlhorn, the group’s managing partner, declined to comment on whether he approved of the tactics he had helped pay for. But after the Times report in December, he acknowledged, in a post on the online forum Medium, a “concern that our tactics might cause us to become like those we are fighting.” He declared that “some tactics are beyond the pale.”

Another organizer of the project, according to two participants, was Evan Coren, a progressive activist who works for the National Archives unit that handles classified documents. He did not respond to requests for comment. Beth Becker, a social media trainer and consultant in Washington who handled Facebook ad spending for the Dry Alabama page and the project’s other Facebook page, called Southern Caller, said in an interview that a nondisclosure agreement prohibited her from saying much about the project.

But, she added, “I don’t think anything this group did crossed any lines.”

Ms. Becker might be whistling past the graveyard with that last comment. In fact, our impression is that left-wing activists do not want to confront perhaps the most important questions hovering over the Alabama disinformation story:

(1) Were crimes committed?

(2) Did Doug Jones know about underhanded efforts to help him win?

I have information that might shine light on one, maybe both, of those questions.

(To be continued)

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