Is there a link between Israel-based 'Team Jorge' and Indian elections?

'Team Jorge' claims to have meddled in 33 presidential-level elections across the world, with successful results in 27 of them, per an investigative report by 'The Guardian'

A screen grab of 'The Guardian' website with an article profiling ‘Team Jorge’ and its founder Tal Hanan
A screen grab of 'The Guardian' website with an article profiling ‘Team Jorge’ and its founder Tal Hanan

Bhavin Kakkar

Fetters on mainstream media and gags on the government’s detractors have effectively led to public scandals being whitewashed before they can linger long enough to disgrace the powers that be.

Take the 2019 case of the infamous state-of-the-art mobile phone spyware suite Pegasus, produced and marketed by Israel’s NSO Technologies Group based in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. Pegasus had helped authorities across 45 countries, including India, to cybersnoop on some 1,400 persons, including senior government and military officials, political dissidents, academics, intellectuals, journalists, lawyers and civil libertarians.

A similar scandal that emerged recently and was swiftly obliterated from public attention involves ‘Team Jorge’, a band of ultra-secret Israeli cyber mercenaries, masterminded by Tal Hanan, a 50-year-old former special forces operative who goes by the pseudonym ‘Jorge’.

The shadowy firm was investigated and exposed by an international consortium of some 30 news outlets—including Israeli newspapers Haaretz and TheMarker, and the French non-profit Forbidden Stories—as a global disinformation contractor specialising in malign cyber activities, including hacking, sabotage and bot farm-run social media disinformation campaigns, to manipulate the outcomes of elections in 30 countries, including India.

‘Team Jorge’ is located in Modi’in, located 35 km south-east of Tel Aviv. Designed as an aspiring ‘City of the Future’, the relatively new town has no connection with Modi, but the coincidence is nonetheless uncanny. (Incidentally, after Modi became India’s first prime minister to visit Israel in July 2017, the Netanyahu government named the Israeli chrysanthemum after him.)

India’s social media found reports appearing in February on the trickeries of ‘Team Jorge’ very plausible, on the grounds that India–Israel ties had flowered under Prime Minister Modi, who had established a rapport with his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu (and the then-president of the US Donald Trump, both considered very controversial leaders).

Social media users also recalled that the Supreme Court-appointed technical committee in the Pegasus case had found a ‘definite presence of malware’ on some of the handsets examined, though the panel could not conclude whether this malware was Pegasus.

Many Indians are also aware that the right-wing BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government strains itself to the utmost to win all state and central elections. The party’s own Information Technology cell, the largest social media cell in the country, wages a massive propaganda campaign at election time and beyond.

The Modi government was the first to establish a full-fledged IT cell in the BJP to carry out its unrelenting propaganda in denigrating the Opposition and other critics.

In 2018, the then BJP president (now the Union home minister) Amit Shah had reportedly claimed that 3.2 million ‘volunteers’ in his party’s WhatsApp groups had the power to make anything go viral, even fake news.

“We are capable enough to spread any message among the people, whether sour or sweet, real or fake,” he had said during a social media volunteers’ conclave in Kota, Rajasthan, while encouraging the audience to make no distinction between fact and misinformation.

“Through social media, we have to set up governments in both states and at the Centre,” he had added.

Last year, three journalists from Haaretz, TheMarker and Radio France held a series of video calls with ‘Team Jorge’ over six months, posing as potential clients interested in delaying an election in a large, politically unstable African country. Their undercover efforts culminated in a meeting with an unsuspecting Hanan in his unmarked Modi’in offices in December 2022.

A report by The Guardian, one of the 30 investigating news outlets, noted that the team members claimed to have meddled in 33 presidential-level elections across the world, with successful results in 27 of them. One team member boasted, “This is our experience… to hurt the logistics of the opponents, to intimidate them, to create [such] an atmosphere that nobody will go to the elections.”

The exposé revealed that ‘Team Jorge’ offered a sophisticated software package called Advanced Impact Media Solutions (AIMS) to clients as a key service that would aid in disinformation campaigns, false intelligence, hacks and blackmail to benefit those customers willing to pay a hefty fee to subvert democracy.

While he denied all wrongdoing, Hanan spoke of the team’s ability to hack accounts of top officials, as also a range of social media platforms, to swiftly create networks of up to 30,000 propaganda bots on social media.

“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 showed the reporters his ‘blogger machine’, essentially an automated system that creates genuine-looking websites posting false information that could then be used by the bots to spread fake news. “After you’ve created credibility, what do you do?… you… manipulate,” he said.

Unfazed by the taint of ‘Team Jorge’ or the EVM debate, the BJP is already predicting a resounding victory for itself in the crucial national elections of 2024. While home minister Shah claims his party will win more than 300 seats out of a total of 543, the prime minister asserts that the BJP’s return to power in the states of Uttarakhand, Manipur, Goa and Uttar Pradesh has already “decided the outcome of 2024”.

What role ‘Team Jorge’ may or may not have played, or will or will not play, in the elections in India will never be known.

When the Indian National Congress demanded an investigation into the alleged links between ‘Team Jorge’ and the Modi government, the latter characteristically attempted to deflect the focus. The government and the BJP raked up the vehement criticism of the prime minister by liberal billionaire financier-philanthropist George Soros for Modi’s stifling of comment on US-based short-seller Hindenburg Research’s scathing report.

This paper had alleged stock price manipulation and other business frauds by prominent Indian billionaire industrialist Gautam Adani.

Modi has often been accused of crony capitalism. He has made no comment on the report on Adani, while his ministers targeted Soros for “trying to undermine India’s democracy”.

They called Soros’s remark a “declaration to destroy India’s democratic processes”, though they were aware that democracy can be effectively subverted by engaging the clandestine services of overseas firms to rumour monger and snoop on critics. They also evidently realised that Modi himself had openly campaigned for Donald Trump when he was seeking re-election in 2020 as US president.

Indeed, Soros had in 2020 spoken about the “frightening rise of nationalism in India”, and said: “The biggest and most frightening setback occurred in India, where a democratically elected Narendra Modi is creating a Hindu nationalist state, imposing punitive measures on Kashmir, a semi-autonomous Muslim region, and threatening to deprive millions of Muslims of their citizenship.”

He pointed out, “The greatest shortcoming of dictatorships is that when they are successful, they don’t know when or how to stop being repressive.”

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