A team of Israeli contractors is responsible for having manipulated more than 30 elections around the world through hacking, sabotage and automated misinformation, The Guardian has revealed after an in-depth investigation.
In an article published early Wednesday morning, The Guardian reported that a team of Israeli operatives has been working under Israeli security expert Tal Hanan, a 50-year-old former special forces operative and CEO of Demomam International, to manipulate election outcomes in dozens of countries over the last two decades.
The exposure was a culmination of work carried out by a team of 30 journalists, with three of them - Omer Benjakob from Haaretz, Gur Megiddo from The Marker, and Frederic Metezeau from Radio France - carrying out undercover investigations on the ground in Israel.
Working under the codename "Team Jorge," the operatives offer their services to those looking to meddle in elections worldwide, as well as to corporate clients, the investigation revealed.
One of the key components in the team's efforts to sway election results is social media, more specifically, Twitter.
A non-human bot by the name of @Canaelan has been found to have links to numerous fake social media profiles, all controlled by disinformation-spreading software owned by Team Jorge and based out of Israel.
With 58 followers and a profile picture of a smiling man with glasses, Canaelan appears unassuming, He periodically shares links to articles from news sources such as AP News, Bloomberg and the BBC and there would be no reason, at first glance, to doubt his authenticity
However, as the investigation revealed, he is anything but unassuming. And he is just one of many other bots like him.
According to the investigation, the software known as Advanced Impact Media Solutions (AIMS) controls over 30,000 fake social media profiles all of which can be used to spread disinformation or propaganda far and wide at extraordinary speed.
The expose published by The Guardian on Wednesday is the result of an undercover investigation carried out by a consortium of journalists from 30 different media outlets, including Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El País.
During the investigation, Hanan, or "Jorge," spoke with undercover reporters Benjakob, Megiddo and Metezeau, telling them that access to the AIMS software had been sold to "unnamed intelligence agencies, political parties and corporate clients," The Guardian reported.
Hanan also told the reporters that his services had been made available to intelligence agencies worldwide, in addition to political campaigns and private companies. The services have been used across Africa, South and Central America, the US and Europe, he added.
What is AIMS?
The sophisticated AIMS software package offered by Hanan and his team of Israeli operatives controls thousands of fake social media profiles on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Telegram, Gmail, Instagram and YouTube. According to The Guardian, some of these fake avatars even own Amazon accounts, credit cards, and bitcoin wallets.
Each individual avatar is given its own unique digital backstory and is able to mimic human behavior through the use of artificial intelligence.
But in order for bots to spread disinformation and fake news, there needs to be a news source for them to take it from.
That's why, in addition to AIMS, Team Jorge run an automated "blogger machine" system that creates websites from which the fake social media accounts can then disperse information.
"After you’ve created credibility, what do you do? Then you can manipulate," he told the team of undercover journalists.
Through secret recordings of over six hours of meetings between Hanan and his operatives, the investigative team learned of how Team Jorge is able to gather intelligence on their clients' rivals, through hacking Gmail and Telegram accounts.
They also "boasted of planting material in legitimate news outlets, which are then amplified by the Aims bot-management software," The Guardian added.
According to the investigation, much of the work conducted by the team in the arena of political manipulation centers around disrupting or sabotaging election campaigns. In one instance, The Guardian reported, the team claimed to have " sent a sex toy delivered via Amazon to the home of a politician, with the aim of giving his wife the false impression he was having an affair."
The smokescreen of Demomam International
According to the investigative team, at least a portion of the disinformation operation was run through Israeli security company, Demoman International.
Founded in 1999, Demoman International claims to be a "leading provider of high-level services for security, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies," as per their website.
They also state that they have been involved in consulting for government agencies around the world, including in Israel, North and South America, Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia.
Claiming to offer "end-to-end advanced security solutions, intelligence, and wealth protection services," Demoman International states that they are "committed to the creation and enforcement of secure conditions for governments and private sector organizations so our clients can conduct safe and efficient activities irrespective of global operating theater."
With Demomam International authorized by the Israel Defense Ministry website as an official strategic intelligence company, company founder and CEO Tal Hanan is a respected and internationally recognized expert on urban warfare, counterterrorism and intelligence.
He also goes by the name of Jorge.
While it's not clear whether or not other members of Demomam International are involved in Team Jorge, the founder and CEO of the international security company seems to be working in two opposing fields - providing security and breaching security.
When asked for comment on the matter by The Guardian, Hanan did not respond to any questions but simply said: "I deny any wrongdoings."
Investigating Team Jorge
In order to carry out the investigation, three journalists from Haaretz, The Marker and Radio France approached the team under the pretense that they were consultants working on behalf of clients in an unnamed African country who were seeking to delay an election.
The meetings between Hanan and the journalists took place via video meetings, as well as an in-person meeting in an unmarked office in Modi'in, Israel.
Also in attendance at the meetings were four of Hanan's operatives, including his brother Zohar Hanan who The Guardian described as the group's chief executive.
In his initial pitch to those he believed to be potential new clients, Hanan claimed that Team Jorge has completed "33 presidential level campaigns, 27 of which were successful."
He also told the undercover reporters that he had been involved in two "major projects" in the US, but said that Team Jorge does not directly engage in the field of US politics.
While they may stay out of US politics, the investigation uncovered Team Jorge bot involvement in other issues including a dispute in California over nuclear power.