‘Team Jorge’: Hacking and Internet Disinformation Could Be The Death of Democracy

Benedict Robinson for Distilled Post

With the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018 and reveal of Pegasus Spyware a year later, ominous stories of high-level hacking, data breaches, disinformation and digital spying have become almost as prevalent in contemporary society as Prime Ministerial resignations and rapidly deteriorating opinions of Kanye West. So it may not come as a surprise that another threat to our online autonomy was unveiled earlier this month.

The threat in question is ‘Team Jorge’, a clandestine company that specialises in election meddling and the online circulation of disinformation. The story was broken by a team of international investigative journalists working for the non-profit Forbidden Stories. While undercover as potential clients, journalists received a full demonstration of Team Jorge’s abilities while the CEO bragged to have allegedly interfered with 33 elections worldwide. Of these, he claims 27 were successful.

Journalists spent over half a year in undercover liaison with the organisation, specifically Tal Hanan, the leader of the group with the eponymous codename “Jorge”. Hanan remained anonymous over multiple online meetings with Frédéric Métézeau from Radio France, who was posing as the representative of an African Government attempting to postpone an election. However, the cohort of journalists recently exposed Hanan, accompanied by his brother and some associates, during a meeting in his office in Modi’in, Israel, where they also recorded a secret video of him boasting about Team Jorge’s abilities.

Narrative Building – Shaping a Story with Disinformation

There are a few tools at Team Jorge’s disposal that they use to, as Hanan put it, “Build a Narrative” that influences people’s perceptions. One of the most powerful is a software called AIMS (Advanced Impact Media Solutions). Not searchable on the web, this programme is the pinnacle of disinformation dissemination. It hosts over 30,000 fake ‘bots’, all with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Amazon and Bitcoin accounts. Using these, the company create a gush of fabrications online that can reach millions of real users; Hanan merely has to input the tone, such as “negative” or “positive”, with a few key words, and out spouts a flurry of seemingly authentic social media posts either revering or condemning whatever Hanan chooses.

The influence of these bots is immense. They vehemently rallied against the UK Health Safety Agency after it started an investigation into a laboratory that provided 43,000 false negative Covid results, a bureaucratic issue hardly likely to rile up a mob of millions, especially not in the lab’s favour. Again counterintuitively, the bots swarmed to defend the disgraced Mexican politician, Tomás Zerón, who had an international arrest warrant filed against him for “kidnapping, torture and tamperingwith evidence”; posts from the bots claimed this was only a smear campaign by the “corrupt” President Obrador.

What the Hack? – Advanced Manipulation

Another string to Team Jorge’s bow of brainwashing is direct hacking of messaging services including Gmail, WhatsApp and Telegram. The director of the subversive group claimed he could not only read messages but send them from hacked phones without the owner’s knowledge. To demonstrate this, he sent a Telegram message, a simple number “11”, from the phone of a high ranking advisor to Kenyan President Ruto. Hanan failed to delete this message and the victim was tracked by a Guardian source who confirmed the hacking.

Additionally, the team utilises a variety of other techniques to accompany the high calibre sabotage of AIMS. Some of these are bizarre or even comical, but Hanan defends their effectiveness.

On election day in Nigeria, 2015, the All Progressives Congress Party (APC), whom Team Jorge were positioned against, were bombarded withcalls all day, effectively rendering their phones unworkable. Then this year, a French TV host, Rachid M’Barki, was fired for presenting views against his station’s editorial line after Hanan gloated that he could get his stories on French TV. Hanan even told a story in which he used a bot to order a sex toy to the house of a political rival while he was away, hoping to create a sex scandal. According to the CEO, this had an absurdly large impact: “he couldn’tgo home. The campaign turned around”.

Details Left in Darkness

This exposé has shown Team Jorge’s methods of deceit in full, as well as many primary participants, but there is still much about Team Jorge that is unclear. For a start, though some election tampering has been proven beyond question, Hanan’s initial claims of 33 elections are hard to clarify due to the secretive nature of their business.

Furthermore, while the culprits have been unmasked, the clients have not. Links have been made to senior US officials, including Roger Noriega, a high-ranking aide who served under George W Bush, and former State Department official, Sam Patten. The latter worked for Cambridge Analytica, whom Team Jorge have close ties with, while Hanan referenced the former official by name in the filmed meeting.

Finally, while Team Jorge is presented as a private company, its CEO, Tal Hanan, is also the CEO of the security firm, Demoman, which specialises in “strategic intelligence,” “public perception,” and “information warfare”. Hanan did not include Demoman’s services in his sales pitch for Team Jorge, however, as it is registered with the Israeli Ministry of Defence. It is illegal under Israeli law to sell hacking services to private individuals; thus we can only assume Hanan’s activities are completely separate. That said, election meddling is quite an extreme side hustle. Most people just stick to their Etsy stores or sell a bit of weed from their school locker, not covert political sabotage.

Although all parties involved deny any wrongdoing, the footage is suspicious at best, and downright incriminating at worst.