A team of Israeli contractors who are feared to have interfered with more than 30 elections around the world have been linked with software to operate fake social media campaigns across several countries, including India, a report said on Wednesday.
In an international investigation by a journalist consortium including by The Guardian newspaper in the U.K., a so-called “Team Jorge” unit has been linked with allegedly offering a sophisticated software package named Advanced Impact Media Solutions (Aims) to commercial clients as one of its key services.
The unit is said to be run by Tal Hanan, a 50-year-old former Israeli special forces operative who works privately using the pseudonym “Jorge”, and Team Jorge is accused of using means such as hacking, sabotage, and automated disinformation online.
When questioned, Mr. Hanan told the investigation that he denies “any wrongdoing”.
The newspaper report said on Wednesday that over several months last year, along with its reporting partners on the investigation, it had tracked Aims-linked bot activity across the internet and found it was behind “fake social media campaigns, mostly involving commercial disputes, in about 20 countries including the U.K., U.S., Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Mexico, Senegal, India, and the United Arab Emirates”.
The consortium of journalists that investigated Team Jorge includes reporters from 30 global media outlets including Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El País.
The project, part of a wider investigation into the disinformation industry, has been coordinated by Forbidden Stories, a French non-profit with a mission to pursue the work of assassinated, threatened or jailed reporters.
The investigation is part of Story killers, a collaboration led by Forbidden Stories, and was inspired by the work of Gauri Lankesh, a 55-year-old journalist who was shot dead outside her Bengaluru home in 2017.
The Guardian notes that hours before Lankesh was murdered, she had been putting the finishing touches on an article called "In the Age of False News", which examined how so-called lie factories online were spreading disinformation in India.
In the final line of the article, which was published after her death, the late Indian journalist wrote: “I want to salute all those who expose fake news. I wish there were more of them.” The undercover footage for the latest investigation into Team Jorge was filmed by three reporters, who approached the unit posing as prospective clients.
In more than six hours of secretly recorded meetings, Mr. Hanan and his team reportedly speak about how they could gather intelligence on rivals, including by using hacking techniques to access Gmail and Telegram accounts.
In addition to Aims, Mr. Hanan allegedly told reporters about a “blogger machine”—an automated system for creating websites that the Aims-controlled social media profiles could then use to spread fake news stories across the internet.