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'Team Jorge' ― how disinformation threatens democracy

February 15, 2023

A major new investigation into election manipulation has exposed weaknesses in the security of internet platforms. The investigation claimed to expose a team of private contractors who sold disinformation services.

smartphone screen showing social media apps
A team of freelance units may have disrupted elections using disinformation campaigns.Image: Revierfoto/dpa/picture alliance

An investigation by 30 media outlets, including the Guardian and Der Spiegel, has claimed to have exposed a team of freelance units based in Israel who disrupt elections and manipulate public opinion using disinformation campaigns.

The contractors, who used the pseudonym "Team Jorge," are run by Tal Hanan, a 50-year-old former Israeli special forces operative, who was apparently caught in an undercover sting operation by a team of journalists posing as potential clients. Tal Hanan denies any wrongdoing.

Hanan allegedly told the reporters that his unit's services were available to intelligence agencies, political campaigns, and private companies, and that they had already been used around the globe, including in Europe, Africa, the US, as well as Central and South America.

Team Jorge's operations are said to involve the creation of thousands of fake social media profiles on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Telegram, Gmail, Instagram, and YouTube. These fake accounts, which allegedly used profile pictures from real social media accounts, were also linked to credit cards and could be used to create thousands of bots that sent mass messages.

"We are now involved in one election in Africa … We have a team in Greece and a team in [the] Emirates … You follow the leads," Hanan said in one secretly filmed meeting quoted in the Guardian. "[We have completed] 33 presidential-level campaigns, 27 of which were successful."

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Platform protection

Privacy rights experts in Germany said Hanan may have exaggerated his claims to impress prospective customers, but that the investigation's claims should be taken seriously.

"It is unclear to what extent 'Team Jorge' simply wanted to present itself well with a lot of marketing talk," Julian Jaursch of the research institute Stiftung Neue Verantwortung ("foundation for new responsibility"), told DW. "Nevertheless, there seems to be evidence of attempted influence peddling and fake accounts."

Hanan also reportedly boasted to the undercover reporters that he could hack the email and messenger services of election campaigners, and send messages to their contacts designed to damage their campaign.

Jaursch, who specializes in how social media platforms should protect themselves and their users, pointed out that regulations had been put in place after similar revelations in the past.

"This is precisely what major platforms had taken some measures against since 2016," he said. "Recently, however, the importance of such measures and the support for the teams behind them, which have spent years building up expertise, dwindled in some companies."

He called this a misguided development among internet companies. "Platforms must continue to devote resources to better understand and deal with disinformation," he said.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight