Facebook has suspended Jonathon Morgan, the chief executive of a top social-media research firm, after reports that he and others engaged in an operation to spread disinformation during the special election in Alabama last year.
Morgan confirmed his suspension after Facebook said in a statement that it had taken action against “five accounts run by multiple individuals for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behaviour,” adding that its “investigation is ongoing.” Facebook did not provide a list of those it had suspended, and Morgan declined further comment.
“We take a strong stand against people or organisations that create networks of accounts to mislead others about who they are or what they’re doing,” Facebook said. “We’ve removed thousands of Pages, Groups and accounts for this kind of behaviour, as well as accounts that were violating our policies on spam and coordinated inauthentic behaviour during the Alabama special election last year.”
Earlier this week, Morgan, the head of the firm New Knowledge, told The Washington Post he had experimented with misleading online tactics during the 2017 contest between Republican Roy Moore and since-elected Democratic Sen. Doug Jones. Morgan acknowledged creating a misleading Facebook page to appeal to conservatives, and on Twitter, to purchasing retweets to measure the potential “lift” of political messages.
Morgan said he had been acting in his own capacity as a researcher trying to understand how online disinformation works, not to impact the outcome of the election. But his efforts came amid a broader campaign in Alabama that sought to undermine Moore’s support. The campaign, first reported by the New York Times, supported a write-in Republican candidate in Alabama and created false evidence that automated accounts, called bots, were backing Moore on Twitter.
Morgan’s efforts have stirred controversy because of his role at New Knowledge, which has helped Senate lawmakers uncover the means in which Russian agents weaponised Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites to spread disinformation during the 2016 and after President Trump took office. The revelations also sparked calls on Capitol Hill for the federal government to investigate.
“What is obvious now is that we have focused so much on Russia that we haven’t focused on the fact that people in this country could take the same playbook and do the same damn thing,” Jones said in a statement. “I’d like to see the Federal Election Commission and the Justice Department look at this to see if there were any laws being violated and, if there were, prosecute those responsible.”
Facebook said its investigation had not found that accounts or pages operated by New Knowledge violated its policies.