New Knowledge, the social media “information integrity” firm chosen by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to write its official report on Russian social media interference in the 2016 U.S. election, was recently revealed by separate investigations of the New York Times and Washington Post to also be in the business of manufacturing fictitious Russian online support for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, in order to create the impression he was backed by the Kremlin. Moore was defeated in the December 2017 Alabama special election by Democrat Doug Jones. Jones denied any knowledge of the effort on behalf of his campaign and called for an investigation.
This appears to put New Knowledge (NK) in the enviable position of dual expertise: Russian activity detector and “Russian” activity manufacturer. Not only will NK ferret out “inauthentic” online behavior in the form of automated Russian botnets, the previously secret endeavor that the company dubbed “Project Birmingham” shows it has manufactured Russian support out of thin air.
According to the Project Birmingham Debrief, a twelve page document created by New Knowledge that was obtained by the Times and the Post, the project “orchestrated an elaborate ‘false flag’ operation that planted the idea that the Moore campaign was amplified on social media by a Russian botnet.”
Given the prevailing Russiagate hysteria cultivated by a U.S. news media enjoying higher ratings and profits, television news outlets in particular, this Kremlin “support” for the Republican in the race was an easy sell to many media outlets in the fall of 2017, well-primed as they had been by highly speculative and breathlessly delivered stories of Russia’s diabolical deeds since at least the summer of 2016. Even Mother Jones picked up the disinformation campaign created by NK – via the Hamilton 68 dashboard that New Knowledge CEO Jonathon Morgan co-founded – and ran with it, publishing the Russian Propagandists Are Pushing for Roy Moore to Win piece the day before the December 12, 2017 election.
One month prior to the Alabama special election, CEO Morgan tweeted that “Russian trolls tracked by #Hamilton68 are taking an interest in the AL Senate race. What a surprise.”
Morgan failed to mention the extent to which New Knowledge had created some part of that “interest” of “Russian trolls” in the Alabama race, but was willing to take credit for observing the trend and spreading the word. By the time the details of Project Birmingham were first revealed to the public in the New York Times on December 19, 2018, Morgan had deleted the tweet.
Little wonder that Morgan came to his senses. It’s best to avoid intentionally drawing attention to the disinformation campaign you’ve created when your company’s reputation has been so prominently identified with combatting online disinformation.
Unfortunately, for both corporate media outlets that have repeatedly relied upon NK’s expertise for their reporting, and the American public which rely upon those outlets for news based upon fact, not fiction, the Project Birmingham revelations call NK’s expertise, methodology, and credibility entirely into question.
Yet the firm’s reputation remains relatively unscathed thus far.
Incredibly, despite having been exposed by the NYT and Post stories as the creator of a fake campaign of Russian social media intervention in U.S. electoral politics, NBC recently cited the firm as the sole experts suggesting that “Russia’s propaganda machine discovers 2020 Democratic candidate Tulsi Gabbard”. Gabbard is widely viewed as the closest thing to an antiwar candidate in the presidential race. The release of the NBC report was timed perfectly – just hours before Gabbard announced her candidacy for president.
Moving forward, anytime someone – be they an average citizen or multimillionaire television news reader – suggests the existence of or impending peril posed by Russian social media intervention in the U.S., one must ask, because media outlets like NBC and even Mother Jones have failed to do so: whose expertise claims “Russian” interference, and are they credible sources? Does their business model rely upon the inflation of that Russian threat?
A well-functioning news media which serves the public interest needs of a democracy first and foremost would be outraged by the revelation that some part of the purported ongoing Russian social media intervention in our electoral system was a disinformation campaign manufactured to deceive the American public, by a firm widely regarded as a valued expert in spotting Russians up to no good online. Such interventions have been repeatedly referred to as acts of war by the state of Russia against the United States.
The institutions of a righteous Fourth Estate dedicated to protecting the powerless from the powerful would be all knees and elbows, climbing all over each other to expose the truth of such a story. Investigations which left no stones unturned and congressional hearings would surely be held to get at that truth. But that is not the media we have in the United States of America. The same for-profit media which made a corrupt, racist narcissist and failed real estate developer a television superstar has now made Trump Television our day to day reality.
Americans may be forgiven for being unaware of New Knowledge and the creative, offensive side of its disinformation business. The corporate press has failed to inform them, and the alternative press has simply not reached enough people yet.
At its root, Project Birmingham seems to be yet another instance of cynical elites acting out of the belief that ordinary citizens are incapable of “correctly” choosing their own political representatives.
For much more on Project Birmingham, New Knowledge and its founders, read Dan Cohen’s recent work at the Grayzone Project.
While you’re there, read Cohen’s piece elaborating upon the role of Scott Shane of the New York Times in covering for NK’s Alabama false flag operation. Shane withheld knowledge of the Project Birmingham operation for several months, as it would have dramatically called into question the credibility of his reporting on the Russian social media campaign detailed in the U.S. Senate Select Intelligence Committee’s report.