LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman invested in a political group that engaged in fake news tactics in the Alabama Senate race in 2017.
LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman invested in a political group that engaged in fake news tactics in the Alabama Senate race in 2017.

Image: Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for WIRED25

A Silicon Valley billionaire who co-founded LinkedIn is apologizing for accidentally funding a recently uncovered fake news operation.

LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman issued a statement on Wednesday addressing a New York Times story that uncovered a “secret experiment” that utilized fake news in the Alabama Senate race that pit Democrat Doug Jones against Republican Roy Moore in December 2017. 

The Times report claims that Democratic tech operatives engaged in Russian manipulation tactics, funded by Hoffman, in an effort to help Jones defeat Moore in last year’s special election.

“I categorically disavow the use of misinformation to sway an election,” Hoffman says in his statement, claiming he was unaware of the project. “I would not have knowingly funded a project planning to use such tactics, and would have refused to invest in any organization that I knew might conduct such a project. Nevertheless, I do have an apology to make and have learned a lesson here.”

Hoffman, who is currently a board member for a number of tech companies such as Microsoft, has invested millions of dollars in Democratic Party-leaning groups following the election of President Donald Trump in 2016. 

One such investment was made to American Engagement Technologies (AET) according to the Washington Post. Hoffman invested $750,000 in the group headed by the first director of the United States Digital Service (USDS) Mikey Dickerson. 

Dickerson, who is also a former Google engineer, helped found the USDS during the Obama administration in an effort to upgrade governmental use of technology.

According to Hoffman, AET provided Texas-based cybersecurity research firm New Knowledge with funding for research. That backing, partially from Hoffman, helped fund the special project that carried out a disinformation campaign in the Alabama race. 

New Knowledge’s chief executive Jonathan Morgan personally confirmed the agency weaponized fake news in the election between Jones and Moore. However, he claims his use of such tactics were on a small scale and denies involvement in the larger scheme described by the New York Times.

The special project involved the creation of a fake news story that linked Republican candidate Roy Moore to thousands of false Russia accounts. The bots began following Moore on Twitter en masse and drew media attention. A Facebook page posing as Alabama conservatives was also created in an attempt to divide Republican voters in the state. The efforts cost $100,000 according to the Times.

Morgan has claimed that his involvement was strictly for research purposes and was not based on affecting the outcome of an election. Regardless, Facebook has suspended Morgan’s account for “engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior.”

It should be noted that New Knowledge is one of the cybersecurity firms that put together two new reports on Russian interference in U.S. politics for the Senate Intelligence Committee. The reports were published earlier this month.

Sen. Doug Jones, who was victorious over Moore in the election, has called for the federal government to investigate. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall is looking into whether the disinformation campaign violated the state’s campaign laws.

Hoffman has joined Jones in calling for a federal investigation into the tactics. He has also committed to maintaining better oversight of organization he funds as well as improving on how he vets future investments.

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