The Guardian published a story yesterday about a group of Israeli contractors engaging in election-rigging through “automated disinformation on social media” as well as traditional hacking and sabotage. The leader of the group, Tal Hanan, a former agent of the Israeli special forces, was outed by a group of international journalists. The Guardian obtained leaked “undercover footage and documents” taken by three reporters posing as potential clients who met with Hanan and his team about their activities. While bragging about their accomplishments, Hanan and his colleagues, who go by the moniker “Team Jorge,” claim they have interfered in elections around the world for some two decades, including 33 presidential-level campaigns, 27 of which were successful.
They specialize in disinformation campaigns to influence voters and win elections. For clarification, the American Psychological Association defines misinformation as information that is false or inaccurate because the facts are false. According to the organization’s website, “disinformation is false information designed to intentionally mislead—intentionally to present false facts.” In the military, these activities are often referred to as “information operations” or “influence operations.”
In his meeting with the reporters, Hanan said his services are designed to “surreptitiously manipulate public opinion.” Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Telegram and YouTube. Some of these fake accounts are linked to credit cards, cryptocurrency wallets, and other accounts. During the taped meeting with the reporters, Team Jorge bragged about providing false information to reputable news organizations and then taking on those stories and amplifying the message by broadcasting it to thousands of people using the AIMS bot software. The story provides hard evidence for using disinformation as a weapon in election rigging.
Disinformation poses a real and dangerous threat to democracy. A candidate can use disinformation to trick citizens into believing what they say and vote for them, or a campaign can spread disinformation to attack rivals and shut down undermine. These disinformation campaigns can be very effective and provide a basis for foreign interference in elections. The RAND Corporation has produced excellent reports analyzing election disinformation, including how Russia is attacking US elections and how foreign actors are using Twitter to interfere in elections. The Guardian The article exposes the disinformation weapon and the demand for these campaign services around the world.
Under US law, spreading disinformation in a political campaign is perfectly legal – as long as no foreign person, entity or government is involved. Federal electoral laws prohibit the involvement or use of any foreign person, government or political party in electoral activities. Therefore, a politician can lie or mislead voters or intentionally misrepresent the facts of his election campaign, and that is a lawful act so long as it is a national matter. The US has numerous legal powers to impose sanctions and penalties for foreign interference in elections, but no restrictions on domestic disinformation.
Why do we protect consumers from misrepresentation and not voters?
Something is wrong with this picture. The US has strong consumer protection laws that protect people from misrepresentation and fraudulent behavior in the marketplace. Why are we protecting consumers and their wallets, not voters, from misrepresentation and fraud by politicians? Federal election laws protect voters from manipulation or influence by foreigners. Why is it okay to manipulate voters with disinformation when it’s all being done by US persons or entities, but not okay when a foreigner is involved? It shouldn’t be okay either.
The Final report of the special committee investigating January 6thth 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 harmful disinformation that it could amplify.” The report further noted, “Although there was no evidence of foreign technical interference in the 2020 election there is evidence of foreign influence.” There is no point in allowing political candidates to openly and legally disseminate disinformation to voters who foreign powers can then pick up and use in their own efforts to advance the American election affect their desired outcome. Disinformation is candy for a foreign government.
Congress must pass legislation protecting voters from willful disinformation by US politicians. Not only would it clean up our electoral process, 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 should also make it illegal to transmit US election poll data to a foreign person or entity. When disinformation is combined with data from political polls, the message can be targeted and tailored to specific audiences, and its impact measured. Not only is this particularly dangerous, it’s almost the perfect crime. It is very difficult to prove that a disinformation message sent to voters convinced them to vote for a particular candidate.
There is also work that needs to be done by other stakeholders in the electoral process. Social media platforms need to better vet their users, get rid of fake accounts, shut down political disinformation, and educate users about spotting disinformation. Mainstream media, think tanks, educational institutions and voting organizations can help raise awareness of disinformation and set up websites to review suspicious communications, share information and report disinformation. Law enforcement agencies, government officials and diplomats must work together to build on each other’s work and establish global channels of cooperation and coordination to counter disinformation activities. For example, the EU has an initiative to fight disinformation, and an independent non-profit organization, EU DisinfoLab, was set up to tackle disinformation campaigns targeting the EU, its member states, core institutions and core values.
This is a global problem, but we must start fighting disinformation that threatens the validity of our elections and is bending voters’ minds. This action will set an example for countries around the world whose elections may be influenced by disinformation from hired guns like Team Jorge or foreign nations or both.