A disinformation contractor of Israeli origin is known to have meddled in elections across more than 30 countries, including India, through sophisticated technology that creates thousands of fake social media profiles using bots.
EARLIER this month, an international consortium of over a hundred reporters from 30 media outlets published the findings of an undercover investigation that exposes an Israel-based global disinformation unit called ‘Team Jorge’ that has allegedly meddled in elections in more than 30 countries, including India, using hacking, sabotage and automated disinformation on social media.
It is not yet clear exactly how the group operated vis-à-vis India, though the investigative report names India as one of the countries in which Team Jorge’s internet activity was tracked.
What is the larger campaign against disinformation?
The eight months-long investigation is part of a wider investigative project against companies and States engaged in global disinformation, known as ‘Disinfo black ops’. The investigation was inspired by the work of Indian activist and journalist Gauri Lankesh, who was assassinated in 2017. One of her last articles, called ‘In the Age of False News’, explained how certain websites are engaged in spreading disinformation in India. She was killed before the report was published.
The project has been coordinated by a French not-for-profit organisation named ‘Forbidden Stories’, which is engaged in pursuing the works of assassinated, threatened or jailed reporters, under its ‘Story Killers’ project.
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What is Team Jorge?
The investigation was led by three undercover reporters — Gur Megiddo of TheMarker, Frédéric Métézeau of Radio France, and Omer Benjakob of Haaretz — who posed as prospective political consultants working for a businessman who wanted to delay elections in a large and unstable country in Africa.
The investigation reveals that the Team Jorge unit sells hacking services and uses a software called Advanced Impact Media Solutions or ‘Aims’ to operate fake social media campaigns across countries. It has also been used across the United States, Europe, South and Central America, and Africa. Its objective is to secretly manipulate public opinion without leaving a trace.
One of the strategies adopted by Team Jorge is to sabotage or disrupt election campaigns of the political opponents of their clients.
The mastermind of this unit is Tel Hanan, a 50-year old former Israeli special forces operative, who runs a private service under the pseudonym ‘Jorge’ to meddle in elections and claims involvement in 33 presidential-level elections to date. His services are available to corporate clients, intelligence agencies, political campaigns and private companies.
The investigation reveals that the Team Jorge unit sells hacking services and uses a software called Advanced Impact Media Solutions to operate fake social media campaigns across countries.
Hanan is also known to have been in cahoots with the now-defunct Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm which was involved in the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal uncovered a few years back. Cambridge Analytica collected personal data belonging to 87 million Facebook users without their permission to be used for political advertising. It was allegedly used to successfully interfere in the Brexit referendum and the 2016 United States presidential election.
The investigation reveals that Hanan, along with Cambridge Analytica, meddled in the 2015 Nigerian presidential elections in an attempt to re-elect Nigeria’s then-president Goodluck Jonathan and discredit the campaign of then opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari. However, Buhari won the election.
In 2022, Jorge’s unit meddled in the presidential elections of Kenya by hacking the Gmail and Telegram accounts of political advisers close to Kenya’s president William Ruto.
How does Team Jorge interfere in elections?
One of its key services, the ‘Aims’ sophisticated software package, is designed to spread propaganda or disinformation online. Aims controls thousands of fake social media profiles, often using real photos of people, on popular online platforms such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Telegram, Gmail, Instagram and YouTube. As per the investigation, fake profiles can be created in an instant using different features that allow one to choose a nationality and gender, and then match profile pictures to the name.
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Some of the fake profiles even have Amazon accounts with credit cards, bitcoin wallets and Airbnb accounts. The fake profiles are led by a non-human bot which creates a multifaceted digital story. Such bot activity is revealed to have been tracked in around 20 countries, including India. These fake accounts were found to have been involved in a dispute over nuclear power in California, a #MeToo controversy in Canada, a campaign in France involving a Qatari United Nations official, and an election in Senegal.
The impact of such sophisticated technological tools to spread disinformation and misinformation makes one sceptical of using social media, where any information shared is likely to come under the cloud of suspicion.
It has been alleged that one of the clients of the software was someone interested in discrediting the United Kingdom’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). As a consequence of the interference, a 2020 decision of the ICO to reveal which companies were awarded lucrative multi-million dollar contracts by the British government to supply personal protective equipment was heavily criticised online by Aims-linked bots.
Although Twitter declined to comment, Meta, the American multinational technology conglomerate that owns Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp, has taken down Aims-linked bots on its platforms.
It has also been revealed that once these fake profiles are made, another automated system for creating fake websites — called the ‘blogger machine’ — is used by the Aims-bots to spread fake news stories across the internet.
How does this impact India?
While the Indian National Congress has asked for an investigation into Team Jorge’s activities in India, particularly in the context of electoral politics, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Union government is yet to address these concerns. At a recent press conference, the Congress compared Team Jorge with the IT cell of the BJP, which is alleged to be involved in spreading fake news and misinformation.
Previously, the Indian government reportedly purchased Israeli cyber intelligence firm NSO Group Technologies’ Pegasus spyware in 2017; in 2021, it was revealed by another international consortium of journalists that Pegasus had been used to snoop on 300 human rights activists, lawyers, judges and opposition political party members in India. The government, on its part, refused to confirm or deny whether it had purchased the spyware before the Supreme Court, citing grounds of national security. The spyware is only sold to vetted government agencies, as per NSO.
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The impact of such sophisticated technological tools to spread disinformation and misinformation raises grave concerns regarding the independence and reliability of social media and the veracity of the information shared on the internet. These concerns become even more serious in the context of India, which does not have any law in place to protect the personal data of its citizens.