A Frontal Assault on Democracy How a Covert Firm Spreads Lies and Chaos Around the World
After months of false leads, traps and hide-and-seek games, a promising clue finally surfaces. It leads into the barren Israeli hill country, to an ugly planned community halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. A faceless office center is located there squeezed between two highways, its entrance hidden. We make our way through the underground parking lot and up to the third floor. There's no sign on the security door or notice of any kind. Inside are three men, all over 50, all with long careers as agents or military servicemen, shadowy figures who use cover names and don't officially exist.
"We are nothing," says one of them. He calls himself Jorge, a man as cautious as he is dangerous. He doesn't know that he's speaking to journalists or that hidden cameras are running. "We run a different kind of intelligence service," Jorge says. And they have a specialty, he says: Elections.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 8/2023 (February 18th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.
Going by his own statements, his covert unit has manipulated 33 national votes: with faked scandals, campaigns of lies, influenced votes and other dirty tactics. Once you start looking, indications of such manipulation can be found in many spots around the world - in countries like Indonesia, Nigeria and Bosnia. "We have a team in Greece and a team in the Emirates," Jorge says. In the conference room, documents flicker across a large screen on the wall, full of information about people, campaigns and the places where the men either were or still are active.
One of the folders is called "Kenya." A "good example," says Jorge. Kenya elected a new president last summer. For years, the country had been known as one of the most stable democracies on the continent, but now there is talk of election fraud, high-ranking government officials have been hacked and alleged whistleblowers are spreading blatant lies. Many in the country no longer know what is true and what is false. Later, the Israelis will give a live demonstration of how they apparently penetrated the email account of a powerful Kenyan politician.
They are scenes straight out of a Hollywood thriller. The main characters call themselves "Team Jorge," a group of amoral disinformation peddlers named after their leader's codename. His real name: Tal Hanan. He used to be a special forces operative in the Israeli defense forces, a counter-terrorism specialist and military instructor. Jorge is also an ex-liaison officer to the United States Navy's 6th Fleet, with close links to American security agencies.
Stills from a video recording of a Team Jorge sales pitch for their services
What Jorge and his team offer are tailored frontal attacks on the heart of democracy. They manipulate what are meant to be free elections, with those who can afford their services increasing their chances of victory. And here, morality counts as little as the law. The main thing is that the money is right. Team Jorge says it charges up $15 million to manipulate an election. Hanan, alias Jorge, says he counts around a half dozen intelligence agencies among his clients.
The methods are apparently as ruthless as they are illegal, and include hacking, slander and forgery. Anything goes as long as the truth is concealed and success is likely. The operation is reminiscent of Cambridge Analytica, the notorious company that scraped Facebook user data in an attempt to influence the 2016 American election campaign in favor of Donald Trump. Indeed, there were apparently even links between Team Jorge and the scandal-plagued and now-defunct British company. But the Israelis appear to be even more lacking in scruples and operate with even greater secrecy - and have managed to avoid detection for more than 20 years.
Their cover had been so good that - until now - their existence had only been known within exclusive circles, including power-hungry politicians, despots and rich business people, primarily in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa. At least one European intelligence service had Hanan in its sights at one point, but apparently took no action.
It is only now that Team Jorge's activities have been uncovered, following months of global research by the non-profit investigative journalism organization Forbidden Stories. Among the media organizations participating are DER SPIEGEL, The Guardian, Le Monde, ZDF, Der Standard, Die Tages-Anzeiger and Die Zeit. The starting point was the joint Story Killers project, which sought to quantify the enormous scale of disinformation, propaganda and cyberattacks.
The project's research has revealed that Team Jorge may be the most dangerous mercenary force in an opaque world that has long operated under the radar. But it is by no means the only one. In recent years, a rapidly growing disinformation industry has emerged, with dozens of companies around the globe working specifically to bend the truth to suit their clients. Its mercenaries for hire will stop at almost nothing: They manipulate elections, sabotage politicians, put whistleblowers out of business – and they can even shake the very foundations of entire countries. Journalists and activists have also been the repeat targets of their harassment. The smear campaigns have sometimes even resulted in murders.
The actors behind such campaigns mostly remain in the shadows, their motives hidden, but the trails lead in many directions – to corporate headquarters, to capitals. To Moscow, Beijing, New Delhi, Riyadh and further around the world, to Washington, Berlin and Brussels.
Ties to Russia popped up repeatedly. Troll armies controlled by the Kremlin and information warriors with the Wagner Group mercenary force spread lies, distort facts and create alternative realities. Their influence is particularly strong in Germany, with few other countries in the West being flooded with as many conspiracy theories from Russia.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama
Officials with the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany's domestic intelligence agency, are alarmed. "State-directed disinformation has reached menacing proportions," warns German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). Russia pumps a lot of money into its global campaign of lies, and "we need to do something about it," Faeser says.
Disinformation has long been one of the favorite weapons of many autocratic states. "Hybrid warfare" is the term used by officials at the BfV to describe efforts made by Russian trolls, Chinese hackers and North Koreans agents to infect digital infrastructure or spread fake news. But now, in times of war, the lines between the disinformation spread by private mercenaries for hire and that promulgated by state actors are blurring. It's a dangerous dynamic. "Europe is on fire," Team Jorge's boss said in a video recording from a conference last summer, "but also our business is on fire."
Experts have begun to see disinformation as a significant risk, particularly for unstable or polarized societies. When too many people can no longer distinguish between facts and lies, it becomes easier for despots and populists to spread their dystopian worldviews. Look no further than Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Russian President Vladimir Putin or former U.S. President Donald Trump.
"You just have to raise enough questions, spread enough dirt, plant enough conspiracy theorizing that citizens no longer know what to believe," former U.S. President Barack Obama, said last spring in a speech he delivered at Stanford University, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Facebook and Twitter both have their headquarters there, and Obama left no doubt that he considers these efforts to be gasoline on the fire that threatens to inflame a fundamental danger: "Disinformation is a threat to our democracy."
Meanwhile, the falsehood industry continues to upgrade with constantly improving tools and artificial intelligence. Neither the political world nor security authorities seem to be prepared for this global attack.
How hard is it to rig a presidential election? Not very, says Tal Hanan, alias Jorge. Not if you've done it enough times. The most effective way is to paralyze logistics around Election Day. "What can happen? Maybe the system crashes. Maybe the voter registration is not working." It's that simple.
The era of disinformation wars is only just getting started.[M] Lina Moreno / DER SPIEGEL; Fotos: Screenshot / Team Jorge Präsentation; Contributor / Getty Images; Simon Maina / AFP; William Andrew / Getty Images; Logo Factory / imagebroker / IMAGO
The Israeli disinformation specialists with Team Jorge call these operations "D-Days." Hanan presents the details in a separate sales presentation under the title: "Elections – one shot, shoot it straight." But doing so isn't a problem for Team Jorge, says Hanan. This, after all, is service delivered by professionals. He presents it as matter-of-factly as if it were a question of fixing your gutters. Just sign here and you'll be able to reliably shake up democracy.
The sales pitch for the election manipulation product lasts almost an hour. "It's the perfect combination of our capabilities," the man says as he leads the audience through nearly three dozen PowerPoint slides in slightly shaky English. He calls himself Max, but his real name is likely Mashy Meidan, a veteran of Israeli intelligence service who was once apparently involved in important operations.
"We provide tailor made services," Meidan says. Everywhere where governments are wobbling, where things could really explode if elections were to get out of hand. All the client has to do is define their goals or targets, and Team Jorge designs a suitable strategy and deploys the necessary resources and people, he says - veterans of intelligence and military services, specialists in psychological warfare, financial experts.
Then Meidan demonstrates how he infiltrates the personal mail or chat accounts of his victims. He hacks accounts on a mobile phone, reads private messages and retrieves photos, data and documents. He even writes messages from his victim's accounts to their contacts – live.
Speaking through his lawyer, Mashy Meidan denies all accusations. The lawyer claims his client has never heard the name Team Jorge before and that he has nothing to do with the company's activities. But Israeli security sources have confirmed that Max is Mashy Meidan. Comparing multiple photos of both people using facial recognition software also yields matches of between 98.2 and 99.9 percent. In addition, the mobile phone numbers used by Max and Meidan are identical.
In elections, only a handful of important things matter, Jorge will later say. First, it's about the candidate's image, he says. Second, it's about mobilizing voters. And third, it's about the respective electoral system – and how it can be manipulated. "We cover all three points," says Jorge. For example with the following methods, which always seem to work: "voter's suppression" and "blame game disruption." The one seeks to prevent voters from going to the polls in the first place, while the other foments chaos through false accusations.
Disrupted elections around the world: the work of hackers?
Time spent listening to Hanan and his truth killers can lead to the realization that true democracy is, in their world, nothing but an illusion. And that they consider elections to be a rigged game anyway – one in which those who deploy the most tricks generally emerge victorious. It is, they seem to believe, naive to think the playing field is level just because people head to the polls every now and then. That being the case, according to their take, why not steer things in your favor?
The fact that the leaders of Team Jorge were themselves formerly in the service of a democratically elected governments doesn't seem to bother them. There are only three rules at Team Jorge, emphasizes Nick: No assignments can be accepted in Israel or the United States, at least not in politics. And going up against Putin is off limits.
Why not in Israel, one of the undercover reporters asks? "I don't shit where I sleep," Nick replies.
In fact, the man calling himself Nick is apparently Tal Hanan's older brother Zohar. He, too, appears to have been a member of Israeli intelligence. As was Ilan Mizrahi, formerly the deputy head of the Mossad. Hanan claims that Mizrahi is a member of Team Jorge's "board of directors" today. When asked, Mizrahi confirms that he knows Hanan. As far as he can recall, though, he says, he has no business ties with him. He insists he has never heard of a Team Jorge. Either way, the close ties to intelligence services and the state apparatus likely helped significantly in keeping the existence of Team Jorge under wraps for so long.
The end of the hide-and-seek game began in summer 2022, when reporters went undercover to expose the operation. Israeli investigative journalists Gur Megiddo and Omer Benjakob, joined by their French colleague Frédéric Métézeau of Radio France, posed as new clients interested in Team Jorge's services after Israeli informants arranged a contact.
Métézeau introduced himself as an adviser to a wealthy businessman who had a strong financial interest in thwarting the upcoming election in a central African country. The Frenchman played the role of the shady middleman so credibly that Team Jorge eventually fell for the undercover journalists as supposed new clients.
A months-long exchange followed. In a total of five video conferences and encrypted chats, and finally two face-to-face meetings, the journalists began working with Team Jorge to develop a plan to derail the alleged election.
Throughout the purported cooperation, a number of appalling dialogues take place. For example, when Max, aka Mashy Meidan, turns to the ostensible adviser Métézeau and says: "The best for your client is to create more of a mess, more fear, more problems in the streets now." Basically, Team Jorge is proposing to foment unrest in a country to prevent orderly elections.
Hanan himself doesn't make an appearance until the third video conference, where he shows up under the screen name "Joyce Gamble," the only one without a picture. Only after half a year does he reveal that he is the boss and the secret company's namesake. When invited to Israeli headquarters at the end of December, the investigative journalists meet a stocky man with gray hair in a military style crew cut and a heavy watch on his arm. "I'm Jorge," he says in greeting. As "chairman," he says, he's responsible for cocktails and parties. He laughs.
Stills from a recording of a meeting with Team Jorge
Forbidden Stories doesn't learn of Jorge's true identity until later. Leads and clues quickly lead to international security circles, where Jorge is no stranger under his real name Tal Hanan. In Israel, he rose up in the military's special forces at one time to the position of deputy head of the explosive ordnance disposal unit. As a bomb expert, Hanan traveled the world, even appearing before the U.S. Congress, according to his own account. As a counter-terrorism expert, Hanan apparently also dealt with security officials in Germany.
Roger Noriega, the former Western Hemisphere division chief at the U.S. State Department, was also his business partner for a time. When asked, Noriega confirmed that he knew Hanan and had worked with him on behalf of joint clients in Venezuela around 10 years ago. He said the last time he had contact with Hanan was around two years ago via WhatsApp, but it wasn't about business.
In the 1990s, Hanan began turning his knowledge and connections into money. Several companies are registered under his name, including the security firm Demoman International. "When conventional is insufficient ... we provide the edge," reads an advertisement by the company for its "unique operational capabilities."
For a covert force like Team Jorge, remaining under the radar is critical for survival. So, steps are taken to protect that secrecy. At headquarters, visitors are required to hand in their mobile phones at the entrance. What Jorge doesn't suspect, though, is that the undercover journalists are wearing hidden cameras, which they use to record presentations and video conferences.
DER SPIEGEL was able to review the resulting recordings, the presentations and the chats and also followed Team Jorge's tracks in Tel Aviv, Britain, the U.S., Kenya, Nigeria and also Germany.
It is difficult to trace the extent to which the secret operatives actually managed to manipulate elections. But DER SPIEGEL could verify central aspects of the portrayal of events provided by Team Jorge. Including in Kenya, because Hanan and his team chose the African country for a special demonstration of its capabilities.
During the third video conference between the undercover journalists and Team Jorge, Hanan suddenly interrupts the sales presentation currently in progress. The reporters had repeatedly asked for concrete evidence of the Israelis' alleged capabilities.
It's July 25, 2022, a few weeks before Kenya's presidential election. Hanan has shared his computer screen with the participants of the video meeting so that everyone can see what he's doing on his computer. He opens the folder "Kenya."
A few minutes later, the Israeli apparently infiltrates the Telegram account of a high-ranking Kenyan government official in real time. At this moment, he is logged in as the supposed owner of the account and can act through that account. Contacts, chat groups, messages and documents sent by the top politician appear on the screen. Team Jorge has access to everything and is in a position where it could easily plant files on the politician that could cause problems for him. Or track down messages that would make him vulnerable to blackmail from his opponents. "So, I can create problems," Hanan says.
A folder on Jorge's desktop relating to political interference in Kenya: a "good example"[M] Lina Moreno / DER SPIEGEL
He then demonstrates how using another hacked Telegram account. It belongs to a Kenyan political consultant. Like the other alleged targets of the hacking attack, he also belongs to the camp of presidential candidate William Ruto. Apparently undetected, Hanan opens up a chat between the consultant and an influential businessman.
To prove that he actually has control of the consultant's account, Jorge randomly types something into the chat: the number "11." He sends the message to the businessman using the consultant's account, only to then immediately delete it. As you can see, Hanan says, his company is capable of doing more than just secretly collect information on opponents. It can also manipulate messages. This makes many things possible: Rumors can be spread and false trails can be laid.
A few days later, Kenyan Vice President William Ruto unexpectedly wins the election by a narrow margin. Shortly after the ballots are counted, an unprecedented disinformation campaign against the election winner begins, one that continues to this day. Election documents that appear to have been doctored are published on dubious websites, fake videos make the rounds on social media, and alleged whistleblowers emerge who later turn out to be phonies.
Much of it sounds like Team Jorge's toolbox. In conversations with the undercover reporters, Hanan does not reveal who, exactly, booked his services in Kenya or what goal they might have been pursuing. As much as he likes to talk about his campaigns and his gamut of manipulations, he does not reveal his clients' identities.
To verify the hair-raising live demonstrations, DER SPIEGEL establishes direct contact with the victims. Because in his haste, Jorge made a mistake, as the reporters' recording shows: When he deleted the "11" he had typed on the political consultant's account, he only deleted it for the sender, not for the recipient, the businessman.
One morning in Nairobi, the businessman who received the message has agreed to meet with DER SPIEGEL. He is suspicious when the reporter asks to be shown his Telegram account. But there, in his chat history with the political consultant, it unmistakably reads: "11."
The Telegram account of a hacking victim (left) and a message sent by Jorge on the recipient's device[M] Lina Moreno / DER SPIEGEL
It thus seems clear that Israeli disinformation professionals do indeed have the ability to manipulate the accounts of prominent politicians. But it's difficult to determine whether their apparently illegal activities also had an impact on the election results in Kenya – and, if so, how much of one.
Kenya isn't the only country Hanan and his partners cite in their effort to demonstrate their power to manipulate. They also present slides about cyberattacks on a vote for Catalonia's independence in 2014. The attacks did take place, but whether Team Jorge had anything to do with them could not be verified. They even claim to have maintained a branch office in Indonesia. In 2019, there were hacking incidents linked to the Indonesian elections, but it remains unclear whether Team Jorge was involved in those incidents.
Another large African country also experienced significant irregularities during presidential elections a few years back. In Nigeria, elections had to be postponed at short notice. On Election Day, phones of members of the political opposition were flooded with calls, making them practically useless. "Nigeria in 2015, that was us," Hanan says.
Emails suggest that Team Jorge had indeed been on the ground during the presidential campaign. According to the documents, the men were tasked with securing another term for then-head of state Goodluck Jonathan – a task that had also been assigned to British scandal firm Cambridge Analytica.
Internal emails show that the two shadowy firms had been in contact for years. On September 2, 2017, for example, Hanan wrote to Alexander Nix, the head of Cambridge Analytica: "Any help we can offer in Kenya? We do know the place." Two days later, Nix writes back: "What do you suggest?" In response, Hanan sends a one-page PDF titled, "Elections Kenya," and promises: "We provide impact that resonates." Cambridge Analytica, however, responds: "At $400,000 to $600,000 per month … there is nothing in your services offering that I believe our clients would be willing to pay such a premium for."
In her tell-all book, former Cambridge Analytica employee turned whistleblower Britanny Kaiser wrote about ominous Israelis who had allegedly manipulated nearly as many elections as Cambridge Analytica itself. In her book, she writes that the jobs often overlapped. But Kaiser claimed before an investigative committee in the British parliament that she could not remember the names.
But she was certainly aware of them. In 2015, Cambridge Analytica head Nix asked her for the full name of the man behind the Israeli company. Kaiser responded to the email: "Tal Hanan is CEO of Demoman International."
When contacted in the reporting for this story, Kaiser confirmed that she had once been in contact with Hanan. She said there had been talks about coordinating together in Argentina. In Nigeria, she said, Team Jorge had worked "separately but in parallel." However, she said that she first learned the details later, since she had not been there herself. But the Israelis obviously made an impression on Kaiser even then: They were, she wrote in her book, willing to do anything for a victory.
And this includes the the fact that Team Jorge even developed their own technology for manipulating social media platforms like Facebook, since they are often at the heart of covert operations. The system is called Advanced Impact Media Solutions (AIMS). Hanan gushes as he presents it: A whole armada of fake profiles can be created for all kinds of internet platforms through a simple user interface. With photos of real people, pilfered from authentic profiles. Hanan presented an earlier version to Cambridge Analytica back in 2017.
The obvious purpose of this virtual goon squad is to attack targets, manipulate debates and set political agendas. In most cases, the patterns are similar: The fake influencers first post their stolen profile picture and then systematically retweet posts from major media brands like the BBC to make it look like unsuspicious activity. Only then do they strike on behalf of their client. Together with its partners in the joint reporting project, DER SPIEGEL found around 20 different campaigns from such AIMS avatars – one to stir up sentiment in favor of the continued operation of nuclear power plants in California, for example.
Tal Hanan, alias Jorge, did not provide answers to an extensive list of questions from Forbidden Stories about the accusations by the time of the publication of this article. However, he denies "any wrongdoing." His brother Zohar Hanan, alias Nick, merely informed us by the time of publication that he had has been working "all my life according to the law!" The Israeli government did not answer questions submitted by DER SPIEGEL.
The effort was worth it for the cyber-mercenaries. Manipulating the truth has grown into a multi-billion-dollar business in which, according to experts, hundreds of service providers are active around the world alongside state actors. And the falsehood industry is growing quickly.
Political campaigns, propaganda on behalf of certain interests, the attempt to shift public opinion in a specific direction – all of that used to only be possible with the budgets available to secret service organizations. But today, there are social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Telegram and WhatsApp that can be used to disseminate one's message. A shadow market has developed, where manipulation and deception have become part of the standard offerings for customers willing to pay. And the palette of services available is broad: Some companies purchase huge numbers of followers for their customers, or they create fake accounts, while others come up with lies for online campaigns. Yet others falsify documents with the aim of ruining the reputation of a company or a political opponent.
Emma Briant, one of the world's foremost experts on information warfare who was involved in uncovering the Cambridge Analytica scandal, is concerned that the public continues to primarily focus on Facebook, Twitter and similar media companies. She says they are ignoring the real problem: "this massive industry which exists beneath the shadows."
Among the giants in this industry is a dubious company called Eliminalia, which promises its customers: "We erase your past." It ensures that information about clients can no longer be found online. Even inconvenient articles in the media can be made to disappear. It is a popular service, particularly, it would seem, for criminals, such as money launderers with links to the Medellin drug cartel, notorious financial swindlers and convicted sex offenders. Such are the findings from an extensive leak from Eliminalia databases, which Forbidden Stories partners were able to examine.
The dataset includes contracts, customer names and other internal company information, a total of 500,000 documents that shed light on the ruthless methods used. According to the data, Eliminalia employees falsify content, backdate posts and regularly lie about their own identity. In the past, the company has posed as a European Union institution and employees have sometimes pretended to be lawyers.
Companies are also among Eliminalia clients. One example is the Italian technology firm Area Spa, which sold a surveillance system to Syria and then wanted to scrub that information from the digital world. When contacted, the company confirmed that it had been an Eliminalia customer, adding that they had relied on Eliminalia to act lawfully and were unaware of any legal wrongdoing.
When reached for comment, Eliminalia said that it would be unable to answer the submitted questions within the week provided. The company also said that the list of questions indicated a "a partial and dishonorable approach" and that they involved company secrets.
"We have observed that the market for similar companies is growing around the world," says a leading Western intelligence agent, though he adds that he hadn't yet heard of Team Jorge. There is, though, an increasing number of "aggressive service providers," says the information specialist, who is also an intelligence veteran. He specializes in hybrid threats, a catchall term that refers to a variety of attack methods aimed at breaking down societies.
Story Killers is an international reporting project on disinformation, propaganda and cyberattacks on journalists around the world. Forbidden Stories launched the project in summer 2022. Bastian Obermayer, who also works for DER SPIEGEL, is a member of the board of directors for the non-profit, investigative group. The reporting project was initiated in response to the murder of the Indian activist and journalist Gauri Lankesh , who was shot to death by fundamentalists. For several years before her murder, extremists had been targeting her with abuse, including lies being spread about her on the internet along with threats and slurs. Since the middle of 2022, more than 100 reporters from more than 20 countries have been reporting on the disinformation business, including the Washington Post, the Guardian and Le Monde. In Germany, the weekly paper Die Zeit and broadcaster ZDF participated in the project alongside DER SPIEGEL. In Austria, Der Standard also took part.
A key moment for the specialist came in 2017. A private company in the United Arab Emirates called DarkMatter had hired an entire team of cyberspecialists from the U.S., all of whom had previously worked for places like the NSA, the CIA and others. At the behest of the government in Abu Dhabi, says the leading Western intelligence agent, the former agents hacked into the computers and mobile phones of pretty much everyone who got on the sheikhs' bad side. The agent says that the group even targeted the emir of Qatar at a time when relations between Qatar and Abu Dhabi were on ice. DarkMatter denies the allegations.
Western intelligence agencies now count around 60 companies in the "Dark PR" branch. And many experts find the boom in private mercenaries to be unsettling, particularly because state actors have been hiding behind such companies in recent years. Governments prefer to use them rather than their own agents to better conceal hacking attacks or disinformation campaigns. Some companies are also subject to covert state control, says security experts. An ominous development.
It was long the case that disinformation was primarily a weapon wielded by countries, mostly during the Cold War. The U.S. tried to destabilize East Germany in its early years by having the CIA distribute fake newspapers. The Soviet Union showed even more zeal in pursuing its campaign of desinformaziya. In one far-reaching operation, the KGB spread the lie that the HIV virus had been accidentally released as part of an American experiment. It developed into one of the greatest propaganda victories of the Soviet secret service agencies.
But the golden age of state disinformation campaigns began with the advent of the internet. "There has been significant growth over time of the number of governments and political parties who are using computational propaganda for various political means," says Samantha Bradshaw. She leads the Computational Propaganda Research Project at Oxford University and has created the Cyber Troops Inventory, the world's largest database on disinformation campaigns. According to the inventory, by 2020 at least 81 countries were using social media channels to distribute propaganda and disinformation, and there are almost certainly more that haven't been identified. "We had around 30 countries" just four years ago, says Bradshaw, noting the marked increase. There are some democratic countries on the list, but most are authoritarian states.
Agents from North Korea and Iran frequently pose as serious journalists to disseminate untrue stories. China, meanwhile, is using all the means at its disposal to cast doubt on the fact that the coronavirus almost certainly originated in the country before spreading around the world.
Among its various propaganda efforts, Beijing's disinformation professionals even invented a Swiss scientist named Wilson Edwards, who wrote on Facebook about how the search for the origins of the coronavirus had purportedly been politicized. Official Chinese channels then spread the findings of the fake researcher. In the summer of 2020 alone, Twitter deleted 170,000 accounts that disseminated such fake news and other pro-Chinese propaganda messages about issues like the coronavirus and Taiwan.
No country in recent years, though, has weaponized disinformation as systematically as Putin's Russia – sometimes with shocking success, as evidenced in the 2016 presidential elections in the U.S. Hackers believed to be linked to the Russian secret service managed to steal compromising documents from the campaign of Hillary Clinton, and then orchestrated the publication of those documents. It was a perfect example of what are known as "hack and leak" attacks, of the kind that also targeted French President Emmanuel Macron in 2017 during his campaign.
At the same time, Putin set up an entire troll factory employing around 1,000 people in a secret office building in St. Petersburg with the goal of systematically breaking down Western societies. Their primary goal? Installing Donald Trump in the White House. Ahead of the U.S. elections, the Russian trolls established what looked like American Facebook groups, such as the United Muslims of America, which claimed to support Hillary Clinton. Up to 120 million Americans were bombarded with polarizing fake news, as a special investigator determined several years later.
U.S. authorities indicted 12 Russian agents for participating in "a criminal conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States." They also posted a reward of $10 million for information about efforts by Yevgeniy Prigozhin to interfere with the election. Prigozhin is a close ally of Putin's, a convicted criminal and the head of the notorious mercenary unit Wagner Group. He also financed the St. Petersburg fake news factory, as Prigozhin confirmed to DER SPIEGEL when reached for comment.
These days, there's a new troll army. It first appeared after Russian troops invaded Ukraine almost exactly one year ago. The Cyber Front Z celebrates Kremlin propaganda, denies the atrocities committed in Bucha and celebrates the deaths of Ukrainian soldiers. Again, it looks as though Prigozhin is involved. He told DER SPIEGEL that he has made office space available to the troll army.
Prigozhin's participation would hardly come as a surprise. The Wagner Group and allied companies have become Moscow's most important weapon in hybrid warfare, a combination of murder and manipulation. The mercenary Wagner Group, made up in part by convicted criminals and right-wing extremists, can be flexibly deployed around the world. Even in places where the Russian army is not officially present, such as in Africa – a region that Moscow has identified as a key geopolitical battlefield.
Disguised as military advisers, thousands of Wagner mercenaries have streamed into countries like Mali, Mozambique and Madagascar in recent years. At the same time, disinformation specialists have flooded Ghana, Nigeria and Burkina Faso with fake news. The combination of violence and disinformation is designed to help secure access to raw materials and recruit new allies.
In Bangui, the capital city of the Central African Republic, it is impossible to miss the Wagner troops – masked white men wearing combat uniforms and carrying modern weapons. The people of Bangui refer to them as "les instructeurs russes," the Russian instructors. The president of Central African Republic brought them into the country to protect him and his regime from rebels, who control parts of the country.
And Moscow's hired guns were only too happy to come. The Central African Republic may be one of the poorest countries in the world, but it is rich in gold and diamond deposits. The Russian company Lobaye Invest – which is, according to the Russian media, also controlled by Prigozhin – has secured important mining licenses. U.S. diplomats say that up to a billion dollars could flow back to Russia from the mining efforts.
Prigozhin insists that he is not actually behind Lobaye Invest and he also says that the company has never been involved in gold or diamond mining. Its role is merely that of exploration, he says, so that "the poorest country in Africa can somehow sell its resources and escape poverty."
If you follow the Wagner trail through Africa – through the embattled capitals in the Sahel, through remote villages and mining regions – a disturbing picture begins to take shape. Even as the fighters continue their pillaging, disinformation specialists do their part by organizing pro-Russian demonstrations. Murders of civilians likely committed by Wagner members are blamed on bandits, while journalists are paid to spread inaccurate stories about the UN troops stationed in the country, with the headlines provided by Russian instructors.
And the message is always the same: The West is evil and Russia is good.
Burkina Faso, which is also home to large quantities of raw materials, has become the most recent target of this information war. After the 34-year-old military officer Ibrahim Traoré staged a successful putsch last September, Wagner Group head Prigozhin was one of the first to congratulate him. At almost exactly the same time, more and more pro-Russian accounts appeared online while demonstrators could suddenly be seen in the capital holding "Merci Wagner" signs. Now, France must withdraw its forces from the country at Traoré's request.
In 2022, the African journalist network Code for Africa identified 74 disinformation campaigns in the Sahel region and in central Africa. Some of them focus on the spreading of lies on Twitter, others involve falsified documents, and still others involve the formation of allegedly gigantic groups of supporters who spam Facebook users with sentences like: "Putin is a savior sent by God to liberate the world from the evil of the West." Experts believe the next target could be Niger, which is home to valuable uranium deposits.
Moscow's deception warriors are not just active in unstable areas of the world. One of the most important targets of Russian disinformation is Germany. A database maintained by the European External Action Service lists 700 cases of fake news and conspiracy theories in Germany between 2015 and 2021 – more than in France, Italy and Spain combined. All of them originated in Moscow. Among them is the claim, for example, that German scientists are participating in the production of biological weapons in Ukraine and are thus committing war crimes.
Alongside such efforts, Russia also deploys its hackers. They are likely behind the attack on the German parliament, the Bundestag, several years ago in which 16 gigabytes of data were stolen. And the group known as Ghostwriter, thought to be controlled by Putin's military secret service, is believed to have gone after the data of dozens of German lawmakers, with success in many cases. The German domestic intelligence agency BfV fears that compromising material stolen in those attacks could ultimately be made public. In Poland and the Baltic states, hackers have already used stolen information to launch smear campaigns against politicians.
Recently, the Kremlin has apparently been trying out new strategies. Last year, thousands of seemingly real copies of established German media outlets appeared, publishing fake articles with headlines like: "With Sanctions Against Russia, Olaf Scholz Has Condemned the German Economy to Death." One of the websites "reproduced" in this manner was www.spiegel.de. Not many people fall for such tactics, of course, but some do, and that group is growing.
Increasingly important for the Russian strategy are individual influencers with a large number of followers. In a confidential memo, the BfV warns that "individual persons are growing more important for the dissemination of Russian propaganda and disinformation over social media channels."
In Germany, the perhaps most important pro-Kremlin infowarrior is Alina Lipp, a 29-year-old who is originally from Lüneburg, just south of Hamburg. Lipp uses her Telegram channel to share propaganda from Russia and Russian occupied territories on a daily basis to her 180,000 subscribers. On February 24, 2022, she welcomed the Russian invasion of Ukraine with the words: "The de-Nazification has begun." Lipp claims that she operates independently.
That is also something that the right-wing extremist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party likes to claim when their parliamentarians or party members act as pro-Kremlin influencers, which has happened repeatedly in the past. High-ranking party functionaries have made regular trips to Russia or to occupied Crimea, while party leader Tino Chrupalla has even been received by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Most AfD politicians have continued to defend the Kremlin even after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, both in Germany and in the Russian state media. They demand the lifting of all sanctions, they are opposed to weapons deliveries to Ukraine and they think that Russia should be allowed to retain possession of all the territory it has occupied. They also repeatedly spread false information, such as claiming that Ukrainian refugees only came to Germany to profit from welfare benefits.
It is also a systemic battle between autocratic and democratic countries: "The fight for the hearts and minds of the people over influence, disinformation and propaganda is playing an increasingly significant role," the BfV warns. A number of countries, the BfV continues, are trying to undermine trust in the stability and integrity of the rule of law.
Just how quickly hundreds of thousands of people can be mobilized in outrage became eminently apparent during the most intense phase of the refugee crisis. A teenager from Berlin named Lisa, from a German family with roots in Russia, claimed, for example, that "southerners" had kidnapped and raped her, a charged term than can mean people from Southern Europe or of Arab or other immigrant descent. Russian state media jumped on the story and reported that the girl had been held by Arabs as a "sex slave." Several days passed before the police declared the story to be false.
The BfV warns that democracies are particularly vulnerable to this type of threat. Yet politicians have nonetheless been rather passive in their approach to the problem.
Still, the German government has, since 2018, maintained a working group to look into covert efforts by Russia and other countries to exert influence. It is called AG Hybrid, and the group includes representatives from the Interior Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and the Chancellery, along with the BfV and Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND). An additional taskforce was set up after the Russian invasion of Ukraine which meets weekly and is charged with countering Russian war lies.
But the government's disinformation hunters primarily work behind the scenes. Berlin has thus far not played much of a role when it comes to the public debunking of fake news. Nobody wants to slip into the role of a "Truth Ministry," say political sources in Berlin.
"The German government addresses the problem in discussion groups instead of developing a comprehensive and long-term strategy," criticizes Felix Kartte from Reset, an initiative that promotes digital democracy.
Other EU countries have taken a more proactive approach, especially the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which blocked Russian propaganda broadcasters four years ago. In 2015, the EU set up a taskforce which exposes the lies from Russia on a daily basis, and Sweden even has its own government body, the Psychological Defense Agency. In Finland, dealing with disinformation is part of the school curriculum.
Germany's government under Chancellor Scholz now intends to develop a more comprehensive strategy against disinformation, say sources in Berlin. The details, though, remain unclear, and months will pass before the government's plans are finished. Currently, they don't call for a large amount of new resources.
Israeli investigative journalists Gur Megiddo and Omer Benjakob and their French colleague Frédéric MétézeauFoto: ZDF
It seems doubtful that such an approach will be able to subdue deception mercenaries like Team Jorge. New technologies, such as artificial intelligence, allow for increasingly intense attacks. "I think we're only at the beginning," says propaganda researcher Samantha Bradshaw.
In other words, the era of disinformation wars is only just getting started.