THE Guardian published an article yesterday about a group of Israeli entrepreneurs who engage in election manipulation through “automated disinformation on social media”, as well as traditional hacking and sabotage. The leader of the group, Tal Hanan, a former member of the Israeli special forces, was unmasked by a group of international journalists. THE Guardian received “undercover footage and documents” leaked by three reporters who posed as potential clients and met with Hanan and his team about their business. While bragging about their successes, Hanan and his colleagues, who call themselves “Team Jorge”, claimed that they had meddled in elections around the world for about two decades, including 33 presidential campaigns, 27 of which successful.
They specialize in disinformation campaigns to influence voters and win elections. For clarification, the American Psychological Association defines misinformation as false or inaccurate information because the facts are false. The organization’s website notes that “misinformation is false information that is deliberately intended to mislead – by intentionally misrepresenting facts.” In the military, these activities are often referred to as “information operations” or “influence operations”.
When meeting with reporters, Hanan said his services were intended to “secretly manipulate public opinion”. They explained that they use a software package called Advanced Impact Media Solutions (AIMS), which connects to thousands of fake social media profiles, such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Telegram and YouTube. Some of these fake accounts are linked to credit cards, cryptocurrency wallets, and other accounts During the recorded meeting with reporters, Team Jorge bragged about providing false information to reputable news outlets then scooping up those stories and amplifying the message by spreading it to thousands of people using the AIMS bot software. The story provides hard evidence of the use of disinformation as a weapon in the manipulation of elections.
Disinformation poses a real and dangerous threat to democracy. A candidate can use misinformation to get citizens to believe what they say and vote for them, or a campaign can spread misinformation to target and undermine their rivals. These disinformation campaigns can be very effective and provide a basis for foreign interference in elections. The RAND Corporation has produced some excellent reports analyzing election misinformation, including how Russia is targeting US elections and how foreign actors are using Twitter to interfere in elections. THE Guardian The article exposes mercenary disinformation and the demand for these campaign services around the world.
Under US law, spreading misinformation in a political campaign is completely legal – as long as no foreign individual, entity or government is involved. Federal election laws prohibit engaging or using a foreign individual, government, or political party in any election activity. Thus, a politician can lie or mislead voters or intentionally misrepresent the facts of his campaign and it is a legal activity as long as it is entirely national. The United States has many legal authorities to impose sanctions and penalties for foreign interference in elections, but no restrictions on domestic disinformation.
Why are we protecting consumers against misrepresentation and not voters?
There is something wrong with this picture. The United States has a strong set of consumer protection laws that protect people from misrepresentation and fraudulent behavior in the marketplace. Why are we protecting consumers and their wallets and not protecting voters from politicians’ misrepresentations and fraud? Federal election laws protect voters from foreign manipulation or influence. Why is it okay to manipulate voters with misinformation as long as it’s all done by U.S. individuals or entities, but not okay if a foreigner is involved? That shouldn’t fit either.
THE Final report of the select committee charged with investigating the events of January 6e Attack on the United States Capitol noted, “With President Trump in the White House, Russia has benefited from a powerful American messenger creating and spreading damaging disinformation that it could amplify.” The report further observed that “although there is no evidence of foreign technical interference in the 2020 elections, there is evidence of foreign influence”. It makes no sense to allow political candidates to blatantly and legally disseminate disinformation to voters, which foreign powers can then co-opt and exploit in their own efforts to sway US elections toward their preferred outcome. Misinformation is candy for a foreign government.
Congress must pass legislation that protects voters from intentional misinformation by US politicians. Not only would this clean up our electoral process, but it would make it harder for foreign governments to amplify these false messages through their own disinformation campaigns and try to influence our elections. Such a law would also make it illegal to transfer US election polling data to a foreign person or entity. When disinformation is combined with political polling data, the message can be targeted and refined for particular audiences and its impact measured. Not only is it particularly dangerous, but it’s almost the perfect crime. It is very difficult to prove that a misinformation message sent to voters persuaded them to vote for a particular candidate.
There is also work to be done by other stakeholders in the electoral process. Social media platforms need to do a better job of vetting their users, getting rid of fake accounts, stopping political misinformation, and educating users about spotting misinformation. Mainstream media, think tanks, educational institutions, and election organizations can help raise awareness of misinformation and create sites to monitor suspicious communications, share information, and report misinformation. Law enforcement, government officials and diplomats must work together to build on each other’s work and establish channels for global collaboration and coordination to counter disinformation activities. The EU, for example, has an initiative to combat disinformation, and an independent non-profit organisation, EU DisinfoLab, has been created to combat disinformation campaigns targeting the EU, its Member States, its main institutions and its core values.
This is a global problem, but we must start by tackling the misinformation that threatens the validity of our elections and hijacks the minds of voters. This action will serve as an example to countries around the world whose elections may be influenced by disinformation mercenaries like Team Jorge or foreign nations or both.