An Israeli company is guilty of spreading disinformation and influencing elections. So concludes a team of more than 100 journalists from different countries after lengthy investigations. They included the British newspaper The Guardian and the German public broadcaster ZDF.
For the investigation, three journalists – two Israelis and a Frenchman – went undercover at the “ghost company” in Israel, which is not officially registered anywhere. They posed as advisers to a businessman who supposedly wanted to manipulate elections in an African country.
The company’s owner, Tal Hanan – he calls himself “Jorge” – told journalists that his organization had tried to influence 33 presidential elections, in 27 cases “successfully.
The investigators could not verify whether this claim is true and – if so – what exactly that success entailed. However, they do believe it is certain that Hanan’s company secretly meddled in the 2015 presidential election in Nigeria along with discredited U.S. data company Cambridge Analytica.
Photo of Dutchman used
Tal “Jorge” Hanan’s flagship product is software that his company says allows it to create more than 30,000 fake profiles on social media. The program allows him to create an online identity, including photo, name, date of birth, e-mail address and sometimes even with a phone number, credit card or Airbnb account, in just a few clicks.
The fake accounts are active on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Telegram and Instagram, among others. For one of the fake Twitter profiles with the username Canaelan, the Israeli company used the photo of Dutchman Tom van Rooijen.
Among other things, the Twitter bot Canaelan reposts messages from the BBC. His timeline also includes tweets about Taylor Swift and the price of a KitKat.
But according to The Guardian, Canaelan was mostly part of a campaign to discredit the British privacy watchdog ICO. In one of his tweets, the fake account makes negative comments about that organization, as do many other bots from Hanan’s company. It is unclear who the principal was and what the person wanted to achieve with the campaign.
“Nice is different,” responded Tom van Rooijen, whose photo was used for the fake account. The 25-year-old Dutchman, who ironically teaches workshops to students about fake news and online “troll factories,” among other things, thought it was pretty weird to see his photo attached to another account.
“I know this can happen. I even teach about it, but even then you can apparently become a victim yourself,” he said. Van Rooijen has since reported the fake account on Twitter, but must prove his own identity to prove that his photo was stolen. “For that I have to upload a proof of identity, but I prefer not to do that,” he said.
Gmail and Telegram hacked
According to The Guardian, Van Rooijen is just one of the – presumably tens of thousands of – unsuspecting Internet users whose photo ended up in Hanan’s software. In addition to this kind of fraud, his company is also guilty of hacking, according to investigative journalists.
For example, before the eyes of the undercover journalists, he managed to break into online accounts of a political adviser from Kenya. He clicked through the adviser’s emails and messages on Gmail and the encrypted messaging service Telegram, writes The Guardian.
Of at least one Telegram message Hanan sent that way on behalf of the adviser, journalists later discovered that it had indeed arrived on the recipient’s phone.
‘Nothing done wrong’
Exactly who the principals of the Israeli company are is not known. They would at least include commercial companies, political parties and security services.
Hanan does not want to comment substantively on the findings of the investigative collective, report the journalists involved. He says he needs “permission” from someone else to do so; it is unclear who. “But to be clear: I have done nothing wrong,” he says.
His brother and business partner denies that the company is breaking the rules. “I have been working in accordance with the law all my life,” he says.