An undercover investigation into disinformation is prompting calls for inquiries by political parties in one part of the world, and the suspension of an established news presenter in the other.
On Wednesday, February 15, a consortium of 30 news organizations—including the Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, Radio France, Haaretz, Washington Post, and El Pais—unveiled a more than eight-month long investigation exposing a unit of private Israeli contractors who claim to have manipulated elections and concocted disinformation campaigns across the world.
Headed by a former Israeli special forces operative, 50-year-old Tal Hanan, the group goes by the codename ‘Team Jorge,’ after Hanan’s pseudonym. Three reporters, posing as consultants representing a “politically unstable African country that wanted help delaying an election,” secretly recorded six hours of meetings with Hanan between July and December 2022.
Hanan stated that the team’s services could be used by intelligence agencies, private corporations, as well as political campaigns. The investigation revealed that a major part of these services for sale is the Advanced Impact Media Solutions (AIMS) software, which Hanan claimed controls over 30,000 fictitious social media accounts, with each avatar having a “multifaceted digital backstory,” and which could imitate human behavior.
The links pushed by these fake accounts were in turn created by another tool called ‘Blogger.’ AIMS was found to be behind fake social media campaigns in around 20 countries including India, the UK, Senegal, Germany, Ecuador, Morocco, and the UAE.
These avatars have been used to manufacture campaigns to shield individuals from justice—including a former Mexican official accused of torture—or having a nuclear plant license renewed in California, US.
These fake avatars were also used to create a campaign in 2022 with the hashtag #PolisarioCrime, alleging that the Polisario Front, the national liberation movement of Western Sahara, had ties to Hezbollah and Iran.
At least some of the disinformation campaigns appear to have been run via an Israeli company, Demoman International, registered on a defense exports website run by the Israeli Defense Ministry. Hanan’s office is located in Tel Aviv.
Team Jorge also bragged about planting stories in the news, including a clip in a report presented by French news presenter Rachid M’Barki.
Describing his team as “graduates of government agencies” with expertise in issues ranging from finance to “psychological warfare,” Hanan bragged that the unit was “now involved in one election in Africa…We have a team in Greece and a team in [the] Emirates… [We have completed] 33 presidential-level campaigns, 27 of which were successful.”
Hanan gave the undercover reporters a “tour” of hacked Gmail and Telegram accounts, appearing to show the infiltrated accounts of senior aides of Kenya’s incumbent President William Ruto just days before the election in August 2022. One of the hacked accounts belongs to a current aide of the president.
Hanan also admitted to spreading disinformation about former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during the 2012 elections.
The investigation further discovered that Hanan’s team worked with UK-based consulting firm Cambridge Analytica during the 2015 presidential elections in Nigeria—including an attack on the cellphones of opposition leaders, and the procurement of confidential medical and financial documents belonging to Muhammadu Buhari, the electoral rival of then President Goodluck Jonathan.
Hanan also claimed responsibility for cyberattacks, including one that targeted the 2014 Catalan independence referendum and another on Indonesia’s election committee a month before the 2019 election, in which they falsely “showed that all the traffic—everything came from China.” News outlets would later report a “Chinese-Russian attack.”
Hanan is now denying “any wrongdoing.”
This investigation is part of a broader collaborative project titled Story Killers, led by French nonprofit Forbidden Stories, looking into the “disinformation-for-hire industry.” It is dedicated to renowned Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh, who was assassinated outside her home in Bengaluru in 2017, hours after she wrote an article titled ‘India in the Age of False News.’