Reid Hoffman has a lot to apologise for, but today he’s specifically saying that he’s sorry for funding a political experiment gone horribly awry.
Last week, the New York Times revealed that a research group with ties to the Democrat Party ran an experimental campaign using social media tactics inspired by Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. According to an internal document that the Times obtained, the group used around $US100,000 ($141,896) to fund a social media effort to split the Republican vote in the controversial 2017 Alabama Senate race between Doug Jones (D) and Roy Moore (R). That race in a conventionally red state eventually did swing to the Democrats. The Times also reported that the researchers were using funding that indirectly came from LinkedIn co-founder and all around web billionaire Reid Hoffman. On Wednesday, Hoffman sought to clear the air with a statement that was first supplied to the Washington Post.
Hoffman didn’t exactly take responsibility for the group’s activities in the Alabama race, but he did admit that he should pay more attention to how his political funding is spent. He wrote that he contributed money (reportedly $US750,000 ($1,064,219)) to American Engagement Technologies (AET), a group that Hoffman characterised as being dedicated to developing “technical solutions to counteract fake news, bot armies, and other kinds of digital manipulation and disinformation, and to use social media and data analytics to increase civic engagement and improve access to accurate information about candidates and issues.”
In his statement, Hoffman claims that he didn’t know that some of his contribution to AET was given to a group called New Knowledge, which participated in the Alabama campaign. “I have never personally authorised or directed any funding to New Knowledge.”
Above all, Hoffman said he was disturbed to learn that his funding was being used to create the impression that Russian bots were pumping up Roy Moore’s social media presence in an effort to link the candidate to foreign influence. That “false flag” tactic was employed by the New Knowledge-connected group and the bots did receive a limited amount of media attention. Hoffman wrote in his statement:
Let me be absolutely clear: I do not. I categorically disavow the use of misinformation to sway an election. In fact, I have deliberately funded multiple organisations trying to re-establish civic, truth-focused discourse in the US. I would not have knowingly funded a project planning to use such tactics, and would have refused to invest in any organisation that I knew might conduct such a project.
Political pundits have mostly assumed Moore lost because he was credibly accused of molesting teenagers and many of his alleged victims were willing to go on record. But the chance for conservative news outlets to accuse Democrats of using tactics they’ve criticised to steal an election was too good to pass up. Nevermind the fact that the Russian activities in 2016 involved a foreign power illegally trying to swing an election, and the 2017 Alabama activities appear to be perfectly legal. We’ll simply never be able to talk about this issue without crying that the other side of the aisle did something wrong. That’s over.
As a member of the “PayPal Mafia,” Hoffman was part of an elite group of entrepreneurs that moulded what the modern internet has become. As the co-founder of LinkedIn, he became mega-rich and flooded our inboxes with unwanted emails for the most useless social network in existence. As an early investor in Facebook, he helped foist that nightmare tool of political destruction on everyone. And now, his half-assed political efforts have contributed to the normalization of deceptive online influence campaigns. So, we wholeheartedly welcome Hoffman’s apology and say, keep ‘em coming.