Earlier this week, Facebook announced that it was suspending five accounts for “engaging in inauthentic behavior” during Alabama’s special election this year. Facebook didn’t list the names of the accounts it suspended. But Jonathon Morgan, the chief executive of research firm New Knowledge, confirmed that one of the suspended accounts belonged to him. Morgan has described himself as a “cyber-security researcher and expert with the intention to better understand and report on the tactics and effects of social media disinformation.” He says that he only engaged in “inauthentic behavior” as part of a research project into social meida’s impact on voters.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Morgan Says He Created a Facebook Page to ‘Test His Ability to Appeal to Conservative Voters’ During the Alabama Election
Morgan admits that during the special election in Alabama — a closely-watched race between Republican Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones — he created a Facebook page which was intended to appeal to conservative voters. But he says that he never intended to influence the outcome of the election — instead, he says, he wanted to do research on how, exactly, a disinformation campaign could work, and how voters could be influenced by social media.
The New York Times first reported on Morgan’s activitites earlier this week, saying that Morgan was part of a “secret project” carried out on Facebook and on Twitter. The newspaper said that participants created a Facebook page on which they posed as conservative Alabamians and tried to discourage Republican voters from voting for Roy Moore. The Facebook page allegedly endorsed a write-in candidate intended to draw votes away from Moore. It also linked the Moore campaign to thousands of Russian accounts that suddenly began following the Republican candidate on Twitter. The goal may have been to create a “false flag” operation to make it appear that the Moore campaign was being backed by Russia.
Morgan says that he never intended to influence the election in any way; he insists that he was acting purely as a researcher. In his response to the New York Times article, he said, “I did not participate in any campaign to influence the campaign and any characterization on the contrary misrepresents the research goals, methods, and outcome of the project.
2. Morgan Runs a Cyber Security Firm That Produced a Report on Russian Interference in the 2016 Elections
Earlier this month, New Knowledge, Morgan’s cyber security firm, produced a report on Russian meddling in the 2016 US Presidential Elections. You can read that report, which New Knowledge presented to the Senate, here. The report charges that the Russian government targeted US citizens with propaganda as far back as 2014, eventually “reaching 126 million people on Facebook, posting 10.4 million tweets on Twitter, uploading 1,000+ videos to YouTube, and reaching over 20 million users on Instagram.”
The New Knowledge report says that the Russian outreach targeted many groups of American voters. But New Knowledge says that Russian especially singled out African American voters. The report says, “the IRA created a uniquely expansive, interlinked fraudulent Black media ecosystem consisting of their own sites interwoven with authentic Black media and Black-owned small businesses to a degree not seen with other communities or groups. These efforts exploited organic American protest movements and focused on widespread, pre-existing societal issues.”
The report says that the Russian campaign also took advantage of voters’ Second Amendment concerns, “red pill culture,” and “tea party” culture. Russian campaigners also tried to exploit “liberal and feminist” culture, according to the report.
3. Morgan Once Worked as Special Adviser to the State Department on Counter-Terrorism
Morgan is the founder and CEO of New Knowledge, a cyber security research firm. The firm recently produced an extensive report on alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election. Morgan specializes in studying “extremist groups” and their use of social media. He has also served as an adviser to the US State Department, where he described his work as “developing strategies for digital counter-terrorism.”
Morgan also founded a group called Data for Democracy, a network of volunteers that gathers data in different locations around the world. Data for Democracy has worked on projects about election transparency, drug spending, hate speech, and weather data, among other issues.
4. Morgan Co-Authored an ‘ISIS Twitter Census’
In 2015, Morgan helped create a “census” of ISIS users on Twitter. The census report, produced for the Brookings Institute, looked at how many ISIS users are active on Twitter and produced a demographic breakdown of the ISIS supporters on Twitter. The report found that in late September 2014, at least 46,000 Twitter accounts were used by ISIS supporters. The report also found that most ISIS supporters were located in Syria and in Iraq, in territory that was controlled by ISIS.
The report also said that the terrorist group’s social media campaign was the result of a few “hyperactive” users: “Much of ISIS’s social media success can be attributed to a relatively small group of hyperactive users, numbering between 500 and 2,000 accounts, which tweet in concentrated bursts of high volume,” the report claimed.
5. Morgan Lives in Austin, Texas
Morgan describes himself as a transplant to the south. He’s lived in Texas for the past 15 years. New Knwledge is headquartered in Austin, Texas. Before he founded New Knowledge, Morgan worked as a platform architect for the technology start-up Ushahidi.