A group of Israeli contractors who claim to have rigged more than 30 elections around the world using hacking, sabotage and automated disinformation on social media have been exposed in a new investigation.
The unit is headed by Tal Hanan, a 50-year-old former Israeli special forces agent who now works privately using the alias “Jorge” and appears to have worked on elections in various countries for more than two decades.
He was revealed by the international consortium of journalists. Hanan and his unit, which goes by the code name "Team Jorge", were revealed by secret footage and documents leaked to the Guardian.
Hanan did not answer detailed questions about Team Jorge's activities and methods, but said: "I deny any wrongdoing."
The investigation revealed extraordinary details of how disinformation is used by the Jorge Group, which runs a private service that offers covert interference in various countries' elections without leaving a trace. The team also works for corporate clients.
Hanan told reporters without knowing they were reporters that his services, described by others as "black ops," were available to intelligence agencies, political campaigns and private companies that wanted to covertly manipulate public opinion. He said they had been used throughout Africa, South and Central America, the US and Europe.
One of the core services of Team Jorge is a sophisticated software called Advanced Impact Media Solutions or Aims. It controls a huge army of thousands of fake social media profiles on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Telegram, Gmail, Instagram and YouTube. Some profiles also have Amazon accounts with credit cards, bitcoin wallets, and Airbnb accounts.
The consortium of journalists that investigated the Jorge group includes reporters from 30 newspapers, including Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El País. The project is part of a wider investigation into the disinformation industry, coordinated by Forbidden Stories, a French non-profit organization whose mission is to continue the work of murdered, threatened or imprisoned reporters.
The undercover video was filmed by three journalists, who approached Team Jorge posing as potential clients.
In more than six hours of secretly taped meetings, Hanan and his team discussed how they could gather intelligence on their opponents, including using hacking techniques to access Gmail and Telegram accounts. They prided themselves on planting material in legitimate news media, which is then amplified by the Aims bot management software.
Hanan appears to have conducted at least some of his disinformation operations through an Israeli company, Demoman International, which is registered to a website run by Israel's Ministry of Defense to promote defense exports.
In Hanan's initial pitch to new potential clients, Hanan claimed: “We are now involved in an election campaign in Africa… We have a team in Greece and a team in the Emirates…. We completed 33 campaigns at the presidential level, 27 of which were successful." Later, he said he was involved in two "major projects" in the US, but claimed he was not directly involved in US politics.
Not all of Team Jorge's claims could be verified in the secret meetings that followed, and Hanan may have been exaggerating somewhat to secure a lucrative new deal with his prospective clients.