Israeli firm tried to manipulate elections in 30 countries: Report



Man holds a ballot for elections at an unspecified location in this undated file photo. (Shutterstock File Photo)

Man holds a ballot for elections at an unspecified location in this undated file photo. (Shutterstock File Photo)

An Israeli company tried to influence over 30 elections in the world for clients through sabotage, hacking and spreading misinformation, an undercover media probe said on Wednesday.

It adds to a growing body of evidence that shadowy private firms across the world are profiting from invasive hacking tools and the power of social media platforms to manipulate public opinion.

The firm was dubbed “Team Jorge” by investigating journalists who posed as potential clients in order to gather information on its methods and capabilities.

Its boss, Tal Hanan, is a former Israeli special forces operative who boasted of being able to control supposedly secure Telegram accounts and thousands of fake social media profiles, as well as planting news stories, the reports say.

The investigation was carried out by a consortium of journalists from 30 outlets, including the Guardian in Britain, Le Monde in France, Der Spiegel in Germany and El Pais in Spain, under the direction of the France-based non-profit Forbidden Stories.

“The methods and techniques described by Team Jorge raise new challenges for big tech platforms,” the Guardian wrote.

“Evidence of a global private market in disinformation aimed at elections will also ring alarm bells for democracies around the world.”

Hanan did not respond to detailed questions, only saying, “I deny any wrongdoing.”

Fake profiles

The 50-year-old told three undercover reporters that his services often called “black ops” in the industry were available to intelligence agencies, political campaigns and private companies.

“We are 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,” the Guardian quoted him as saying.

Most of the campaigns – two-thirds – were in Africa, he claimed.

While demonstrating his technology to reporters, he appeared to hack into the Gmail inbox and Telegram account of political operatives in Kenya days before a presidential election there.

Forbidden Stories named the targets as two aides to William Ruto, who ended up winning the August 2022 ballot.

Online public influence campaigns were carried out via a software platform, known as Advanced Impact Media Solutions, which allegedly controlled nearly 40,000 social media profiles across Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, the reports say.

Hanan also claimed that his firm had planted a report on France’s biggest television news channel BFM about the impact of sanctions against Russia on the yachting industry in Monaco.

A senior presenter on the channel, Rachid M’Barki, 54, has been suspended and is being investigated.

Public influence

Other similar companies have been named in media reports or sanctioned by Western governments in recent years over their role in trying to influence elections and public opinion.

Notorious British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica – shut down since – was allegedly used to develop software steering voters towards Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The group collected and exploited the personal data of 87 million Facebook users to which the platform had given it access, leading to major fines and lawsuits.

On Tuesday, the chief of the Russian mercenary group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, admitted creating an infamous troll firm that is also suspected of interfering in Western elections.

Sanctioned by Washington and Brussels, the Saint Petersburg-based “Internet Research Agency” had for years been linked to Prigozhin, a 61-year-old ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Following the latest revelations, Israel might also face increased pressure to rein in its cutting-edge cyberware and technology sector which was spotlighted in another media investigation led by Forbidden Stories in 2021.

It highlighted how the powerful Israeli-made Pegasus spyware had been sold by the cyber intelligence company NSO Group Technologies to governments and used against at least 50,000 people around the world.

Some of the alleged targets included human rights defenders and religious leaders, as well as politicians such as French President Emmanuel Macron.

Forbidden Stories is a collaborative platform set up in 2017 at the initiative of French documentary maker Laurent Richard, with the support of Reporters Without Borders, and brings together more than 30 different media from around the world.

Germany to assess Israeli firm’s manipulation of elections worldwide

Germany is looking into media reports about an Israeli company manipulating elections in over 30 countries, a government spokesman said on Wednesday.

“First of all, I think I can say that we first evaluate such reports to see exactly what this is about. All other questions will be answered afterwards. We will first clarify internally as to how we would then react, and we may then be able to report on it publicly afterwards,” Steffen Hebestreit told reporters in Berlin.

He stressed that Germany does not tolerate meddling by a foreign state in the election process of another country.

“We do not tolerate disinformation in the context of elections, since elections are one of the central decision-making processes in our democracy, especially not disinformation from a foreign state, i.e. illegitimate influence by another state on Germany,” Hebestreit said.

According to an international investigative team, the Israeli company, which uses the codename “Team Jorge,” had manipulated elections worldwide for money.

Former military and intelligence agents reportedly used fake news and hacking methods to achieve their objectives.

The reports are based on six hours of secretly recorded conversations in which company boss Tal Hanan, and his team outlined their services.

The team has so far interfered in 33 national election campaigns and votes, including in Kenya and Nigeria, reports suggested.

Tal Hanan could be heard saying in the recordings that 27 of the missions were successful.

For manipulation on social media, the team developed its own platform called “Aims,” which could be used to create verified user accounts.

However, not all claims could be independently verified, the reports said.

According to the report, the company is based in the Israeli city of Modiin, which is about halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The team controlled an “army” of more than 30,000 bots, profiles on social media that are not backed by real people, British daily The Guardian reported on Wednesday.

These were extremely cleverly designed and are simultaneously represented on various platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

According to the team, they were also able to hack Telegram and Gmail.

With the help of smear campaigns and stolen information, public opinion was specifically influenced, the report said.

Hanan charged between $400,000 and $600,000 a month for his services. The Israeli businessman has denied any wrongdoing, the report added.


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