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LinkedIn co-founder says 'sorry' for funding group behind fake news in Alabama race

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In Alabama, the group funded by Mr Hoffman allegedly used Facebook and Twitter to undermine support for Republican Roy Moore and boost Democrat Doug Jones, who narrowly won the race.

Washington

BILLIONAIRE Reid Hoffman apologised on Wednesday for funding a group linked to a "highly disturbing" effort that spread disinformation during last year's Alabama special election for the US Senate, but he said he was not aware that his money was being used for this purpose.

Mr Hoffman's statement is the first acknowledgement of his ties to a campaign that adopted tactics similar to those deployed by Russian operatives during the 2016 presidential election. In Alabama, the Hoffman-funded group allegedly used Facebook and Twitter to undermine support for Republican Roy Moore and boost Democrat Doug Jones, who narrowly won the race. Mr Hoffman, an early Facebook investor and co-founder of LinkedIn, also expressed support for a federal investigation into what happened, echoing Mr Jones' position from last week.

The Alabama effort was one of a series of multimillion-dollar expenditures that Mr Hoffman made to dozens of left-leaning groups in the aftermath of the 2016 election, when he offered himself to reeling Democrats as a source of money, connections and Silicon Valley-style disruption to the world of party politics.

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Mr Hoffman invested US$750,000 in one group, American Engagement Technologies, or AET, according to a person close to the matter but not authorised to discuss Mr Hoffman's spending. Mr Hoffman's statement on Wednesday referred to AET, which has been linked to a campaign to spread disinformation targeting Mr Moore.

But the statement left key facts unaddressed, including a full accounting of everyone who crafted and executed the campaign. The effort was the subject of a presentation in September to a group of liberal-leaning technology experts who met in downtown Washington to discuss electoral tactics, according to one of the attendees and documents from the meeting obtained by The Washington Post. This person spoke on the condition of anonymity because those at the gathering were required to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Mr Hoffman said in the statement: "I find the tactics that have been recently reported highly disturbing. For that reason, I am embarrassed by my failure to track AET - the organisation I did support - more diligently as it made its own decisions to perhaps fund projects that I would reject."

The head of AET, former Obama administration official and Google engineer Mikey Dickerson, has not responded to numerous requests for comment. Mr Hoffman's public apology follows news reports on the effort, known as Project Birmingham, which involved the creation of misleading Facebook pages to persuade Alabama conservatives to vote for somebody other than Mr Moore.

One Project Birmingham tactic described in the document said backers had created false online evidence that a network of Russian automated accounts, called bots, were supporting Mr Moore. In his statement, Mr Hoffman called this report "the most disturbing aspect" of the disinformation effort. This and some other key details were first reported in The New York Times.

In his statement, Mr Hoffman sought to distance himself from misleading online tactics, saying: "I want to be unequivocal: there is absolutely no place in our democracy for manipulating facts or using falsehoods to gain political advantage." WP