Manipulating elections

A consortium of reporters from 30 media outlets working undercover have exposed an election disinformation program that spans many countries. Pretending to be “consultants working on behalf of a politically unstable African country that wanted help delaying an election”, they managed to secretly video conversations with the group’s founder who talked about what his operation has done and what he could offer them.

A team of Israeli contractors who claim to have manipulated more than 30 elections around the world using hacking, sabotage and automated disinformation on social media has been exposed in a new investigation.

The unit is run by Tal Hanan, a 50-year-old former Israeli special forces operative who now works privately using the pseudonym “Jorge”, and appears to have been working under the radar in elections in various countries for more than two decades.

He is being unmasked by an international consortium of journalists. Hanan and his unit, which uses the codename “Team Jorge”, have been exposed by undercover footage and documents leaked to the Guardian.

Hanan told the undercover reporters that his services, which others describe as “black ops”, were available to intelligence agencies, political campaigns and private companies that wanted to secretly manipulate public opinion. He said they had been used across Africa, South and Central America, the US and Europe.

One of Team Jorge’s key services is a sophisticated software package, Advanced Impact Media Solutions, or Aims. It controls a vast army of thousands of fake social media profiles on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Telegram, Gmail, Instagram and YouTube. Some avatars even have Amazon accounts with credit cards, bitcoin wallets and Airbnb accounts.

In more than six hours of secretly recorded meetings, Hanan and his team spoke of how they could gather intelligence on rivals, including by using hacking techniques to access Gmail and Telegram accounts. They boasted of planting material in legitimate news outlets, which are then amplified by the Aims bot-management software.

The methods and techniques described by Team Jorge raise new challenges for big tech platforms, which have for years struggled to prevent nefarious actors spreading falsehoods or breaching the security on their platforms. Evidence of a global private market in disinformation aimed at elections will also ring alarm bells for democracies around the world.

The Team Jorge revelations could cause embarrassment for Israel, which has come under growing diplomatic pressure in recent years over its export of cyber-weaponry that undermines democracy and human rights.

Hanan appears to have run at least some of his disinformation operations through an Israeli company, Demoman International, which is registered on a website run by the Israeli Ministry of Defense to promote defence exports. The Israeli MoD did not respond to requests for comment.

We are in an era in which autocrats prefer to manipulate elections rather than obtain and hold power through coups or other autocratic measures. It gives them a veneer of respectability because then they can claim that they have been democratically elected and also get the legislatures that favor them also elected and use them to appoint judges and pass laws that entrench them and allow them to enrich themselves in power. These countries end up as faux-democracies in which people do not have the power to change unpopular policies unless they take to the streets in mass uprisings. Such protests are very hard to sustain over a long period.


  1. johnson catman says

    Such protests are very hard to sustain over a long period.

    Especially when those in power use the police to suppress the protests in the name of “safety” or “order” or even better, “protection”.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    No doubt anti-Semites will cite this group forever after as a justification for their prejudices and crimes, even as they attack democracy for their own power-grabs.

    Even without the connections to Cambridge Analytica (a now-supposedly-dissolved crucial player in Trump’s dirty 2016 campaign), US national security demands a thorough and public investigation into this operation. Will we get one?

  3. sonofrojblake says

    “anti-Semites will cite this group forever after as a justification for their prejudices”

    In fairness, it’s both
    (a) almost exactly the sort of thing they bang on about all the bloody time and
    (b) actually happening.

    I mean #notallJewishpeople obviously, but you have to concede that this looks like confirmation of precisely what nutty conspiracy theorists are claiming is going on. Its not a truth I’m comfortable with.

  4. John Morales says

    We are in an era in which autocrats prefer to manipulate elections rather than obtain and hold power through coups or other autocratic measures.

    I think that’s always been the case; after all, elections are basically popularity contests. Scare tactics and demagoguery and misinformation are quite traditional strategies.

    This sort of manipulation is now done by social media more than by older mainstream media — control of newspapers and TV and radio is no longer sufficient as those platforms lose relevance.

    (I see Pierce @2 beat me to the mention of Cambridge Analytica — which was not Israeli)

    Oh, and to be pedantic, it’s not the elections that are being manipulated, it’s electors’ reality. A downside of democracy is that it only works well with an informed electorate, so obviously a misinformed electorate is not conducive to good outcomes.

  5. Holms says

    Oh, and to be pedantic, it’s not the elections that are being manipulated, it’s electors’ reality.


  6. John Morales says

    Silentbob, nah. The distinction to which I refer is that both are manipulating the outcome of the election, but only one manipulates the election, whereas the other manipulates the electorate.

    Now, you may not think that’s a different thing, either… but it would be good if you could at least understand what I write.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    The problem that the people trying to whip up indignation over this have is as follows:
    We’ve seen Trump try to manipulate an election by trying to get people in a position of responsibility to “find votes” -- i.e. to let the voters vote as they may, then ignore the numbers.
    We’ve seen Trump try to manipulate an election by inciting a violent mob to attack a seat of power with a view to interfering with the certification of the election result, i.e., to let the voters vote as they may, then ignore the numbers.

    What we’re being asked to clutch our pearls over here is voters being lied to so that they’ll vote a particular way. Like, er… every single election I’ve ever voted in. Trump said he’d build a wall. Alexander Johnson said there was an “oven-ready” Brexit deal, and that £350m a week would go to the NHS.

    Maybe I’m naive, but I simply can’t get particularly aerated about the idea that people are being fed lies in order to affect their vote, because it has been happening literally every day of my life. The point these journalists seem to be trying to make is “ah, yes, but THIS lying is different, because it’s organised and targeted and people aren’t aware of it”, which I think massively overestimates the intelligence of the average voter.

    I would sincerely like to hear an argument why this is any different.

  8. Dunc says

    sonofrojblake: The other point that I don’t think I’ve ever seen adequately addressed is whether or not this sort of stuff is actually effective. There’s just this assumption that micro-targeted social media stuff is hugely effective, but that seems to be largely based on the claims of people selling micro-targeted social media advertising. And those claims get swallowed wholesale by people who are desperatlely casting around for an explanation as to why they lost that doesn’t have anything to do with them… And journalists who seem upset that other people are moving in on their turf.

    As I say every time the subject comes up, the organised foreign election interference I’m most concerned about all comes from Rupert Murdoch. Maybe that will change as the media landscape shifts, but I think there’s a long way to go yet.

  9. sonofrojblake says

    there’s a technique whereby the information space is flooded with bullshit and conflicting narratives. Putin does it, Bannon did it

    The Sun and the Mirror (both UK tabloids, the one on the right, the other on the left) have been doing it since before I was in high school. The only difference I can see is “the information space” is no longer limited to television, radio and newspapers. I really can’t see any difference between this and the paid for adverts and opinion pieces in papers that have been going on my whole life… except for the possibility that the people who are used to being in control of this stuff aren’t any more. And Dunc makes a great point -- does any of it even work?

  10. Dunc says

    It’s worth bearing in mind that the people who vote most (i.e old people) have the least exposure to social media, but are most likely to buy a “newspaper”.

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