An international team of journalists has exposed a group of Israeli contractors who claim to have manipulated more than 30 elections around the world, including India. The group is code-named “Team Jorge” after its leader, who goes by the pseudonym Jorge. His real name is Tal Hanan and he is a 50-year-old former Israeli special forces operative.
The team allegedly uses “hacking, sabotage, and automated disinformation on social media” to manipulate elections, according to The Guardian, which, along with Observer, has partnered with the international consortium of reporters to investigate global disinformation. The consortium includes reporters from 30 outlets, including Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El País.
Undercover op by journos
According to The Guardian report, three reporters, who approached Team Jorge posing as prospective client, shot an undercover footage. In some six-odd hours of footage, Hanan and his teammates bragged how they gathered intelligence on rivals, including by hacking their Gmail and Telegram accounts, planting material in genuine news outlets, augmented by the Aims bot-management software. Their focus is reportedly on disrupting or sabotaging rival campaigns.
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According to The Guardian, Tal Hanan “appears to have been working under the radar in elections in various countries for more than two decades.” One of Team Jorge’s major services is a software package called Advanced Impact Media Solutions (Aims) that can control 30,000 fake online profiles across Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Gmail, Instagram, Telegram, and YouTube.
Bot and ‘blogger machine’
The journalists’ team and The Guardian figured out that Aims-linked bot activity was behind fake social media campaigns in around 20 countries, including India, the UK, the US, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Mexico, Senegal, and the United Arab Emirates, said the report.
Besides Aims, Hanan told the reporters about his “blogger machine,” says The Guardian report. It is reportedly an automated system to create websites for the Aims-controlled fake social media profiles to use to spread fake news items across online platforms.
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Hanan also reportedly demonstrated to the journalist team how his team could hack into Telegram and Gmail accounts. These revelations raise new challenges for big tech platforms, which have been struggling to prevent the spread of fake news or security breaches on their platforms.
Inspired by Gauri Lankesh
According to The Guardian report, Team Jorge’s base is an unmarked office in an industrial park in Modi’in, some 32 km from Tel Aviv. Hanan reportedly described his team as “graduates of government agencies”, with expertise in finance, social media and campaigns, as well as “psychological warfare”, operating from six offices around the world.
According to the report, at least some of Team Jorge’s disinformation operations seem to have been carried out through an Israeli company, Demoman International. It is reportedly registered on a Israeli defence ministry-run website to promote defence exports.
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Interestingly, The Guardian website mentions that the eight-month investigation was inspired by the work of journalist Gauri Lankesh, who was shot dead outside her Bengaluru home in 2017. Lankesh’s article titled In the Age of False News, which examined the role of “lie-factories” in spreading disinformation in India, was published after her death.
Hanan has reportedly denied any wrong-doing.
(With agency inputs)