Guardian Investigations Team

The Guardian

Disinformation has been compared to an “atomic bomb in our information ecosystem”, a problem so insidious that it allows hate, anger and conspiracy theories to spread faster than truth. From Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, to the January 6 2021 insurrection on the US Capitol, to deadly lies around Covid-19, disinformation is shaping major global events.

Disinfo Black Ops was a special project by the Guardian's investigations team exposing how false information is deliberately spread by covert operatives working for political actors, companies and wealthy individuals. The investigation exposed a team of Israeli "black ops" mercenaries that went under the name of Team Jorge, who had been operating under the radar unchallenged for over two decades and claimed to have manipulated more than 30 elections around the world. The project centred on six hours of secretly recorded meetings in which key members of Team Jorge spoke about their operations, providing extraordinary insight into how they had used technology to weaponise disinformation. They took the undercover reporters through their technical capabilities including how they used hacking techniques to gain access to Gmail and Telegram accounts and they revealed a software package they had created known as Aims, which controls an army of more than 30,000 bots capable of spreading disinformation at scale against any opponent. Many difficult hurdles needed to be overcome in this investigation, and over 8 months, our team worked with a consortium of international reporters coordinated by the not-for-profit organisation Forbidden Stories to corroborate the claims made by the operatives and crucially to unmask the individuals behind Team Jorge. Identifying the members of the operation was a key challenge. In the hours of undercover footage the team's true identities were never revealed. They used aliases. Through advanced internet searches and Osint (open-source intelligence) techniques, Guardian reporters working with others in the consortium were able to identify most of the team. But “Jorge” remained a mystery until in a throwaway boast, he claimed a past link to the notorious but now defunct consultancy Cambridge Analytica. It was this boast that finally unmasked the man. Leaked Cambridge Analytica emails seen by the Guardian revealed him as Tal Hanan. Reporting further on these leaked emails we were able to reveal how Team Jorge had worked alongside Cambridge Analytica in the Nigerian election. This reporting revealed the extent of work carried out by these operatives in this election. The Guardian also worked with reporters from Le Monde and Der Spiegel to track down more than 2,000 bots used by the Aims software, and worked backwards to see how these avatars were used in disinformation campaigns. Across a series of stories the investigation provided for the first time an extraordinary insight into how technology is being used in global election subversion operations. Reporting team: Stephanie Kirchgaessner, Manisha Ganguly, David Pegg, Paul Lewis, Carole Cadwalladr and Jason Burke