'After you’ve created credibility, then you can manipulate'

Exposé unmasks Israel-led disinformation team that meddled in dozens of elections

Tal Hanan, aka ‘Jorge,’ revealed to have ability to hack accounts of top officials, plus software for quickly creating networks of 30,000 social media bots; he denies wrongdoing

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

A secretive Israeli team of contractors operating from the central city of Modiin was unveiled Wednesday as a global source of successful disinformation campaigns that has meddled in elections and commercial disputes in dozens of countries around the world.

Tal Hanan, 50, a former special forces operative who goes by the pseudonym “Jorge,” was named as the mastermind behind the Israeli operation, which runs a sophisticated software known as Aims that is capable of hacking social media accounts of senior officials and of easily creating networks of up to 30,000 propaganda bots on social media.

The bombshell revelation was the result of an investigative report by an international consortium of some 30 news outlets, including Israel’s Haaretz and The Marker, along with Forbidden Stories, a French nonprofit that aims to continue the work of assassinated, threatened or imprisoned journalists.

Hanan’s team, known as “Team Jorge,” says it has meddled in 33 presidential-level elections around the world, with successful results in 27 of them, according to The Guardian, one of the 30 investigating news outlets. The exposé only named one of these elections — the 2015 presidential vote in Nigeria — while saying no elections in the United States are known to have been affected.

The report said the Israeli initiative was behind fake campaigns — mostly on commercial disputes — in some 20 countries, including Britain, the US, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Mexico, Senegal, India and the United Arab Emirates. There was no mention of campaigns in Israel itself.

Hanan refused to comment on the allegations, but added that he denies any wrongdoing. His brother Zohar Hanan, the group’s chief executive, said he has always worked in accordance with the law.

Three journalists — from Haaretz, The Marker and Radio France — held a series of video call meetings with Hanan over six months last year, posing as consultants for elements that wanted to delay an election in a large, politically unstable country in Africa.

Tal Hanan, the leader of a team allegedly meddling in election and commercial campaigns around the world, at his office in Modiin, December 2022. (Screenshot: YouTube; Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Their work culminated in December, when the undercover reporters met an apparently unsuspecting Hanan in person in his unmarked Modiin offices, filming him while he boasted of his team’s capabilities.

“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,” said Hanan during the meeting, which was attended by four of his colleagues. He also claimed involvement in two “major projects” in the US, while saying he didn’t deal directly with US politics.

Hanan described his teammates as experts in finance, social media, campaigns and “psychological warfare,” saying they were “graduates of government agencies.”

He demonstrated the capabilities of his software, quickly picking a name, gender, pictures and other background information for a fake social media avatar that had interlinked accounts on several platforms, designed to look genuine to unsuspecting internet users.

The interface of Aims, a software that can create a sophisticated network of 30,000 social media bots for disinformation campaigns, as Tal Hanan presents it during a video call in 2022. (Screenshot: YouTube; Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

It wasn’t clear where the photos for the bots had been taken, although the investigation revealed some instances when photos were stolen from real people’s accounts.

Hanan also showed the reporters his “blogger machine,” an automated system that creates authentic-looking websites posting false information that could then be used by the bots to spread the fake news.

“After you’ve created credibility, what do you do? Then you can manipulate,” he said.

Hanan also demonstrated his team’s ability to hack the social media accounts of high-ranking officials in targeted countries, retrieving information from the Gmail account of a senior Kenyan election official and posting a message from the Telegram account of a Kenyan political strategist.

“One of the biggest things is to put sticks between the right people, you understand? And I can write him what I think about his wife, or what I think about his last speech, or I can tell him that I promised him to be my next chief of staff, okay?” said Hanan.

Tal Hanan, the leader of a team allegedly meddling in election and commercial campaigns around the world, at his office in Modiin in 2022. (Screenshot: YouTube; Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Hanan hinted that the hacking methods involved exploiting known vulnerabilities in the global signaling telecommunications system, known as SS7, long regarded by experts as a weak spot.

While Hanan said he would charge 6 million to 15 million euros ($6.5 million-$16 million) for his services, the report cited leaked emails from several years ago detailing far lower fees, from $160,000 for involvement in a campaign in a Latin American country to $400,000-600,000 for a campaign in Kenya. There was no evidence either of those deals had been accepted.

Hanan refused to disclose his name during the meeting, but he left enough clues to enable the journalists to uncover his identity, with the final piece of evidence coming from a leaked Cambridge Analytica email exposed in the massive leak of the now-defunct British consultancy, which had previously collaborated with Hanan.

At least some of Hanan’s operations, according to the investigation, had been run via Israeli company Demoman International, which is listed on a Defense Ministry website as a firm that advances defense exports. The Defense Ministry declined to comment.

Israel has already come under diplomatic pressure to clamp down on its growing shadowy industry of cyberespionage, with several companies — led by the notorious NSO Group — accused of helping autocratic regimes around the world crack down on human rights and target political rivals.

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