The Great Election Hacking Freakout
Stop panicking and look closer.
A secretive group known as 'Team Jorge' has spent two decades manipulating elections and public discourse around the world.
This is the key finding of an "explosive" new investigation, carried out by over 30 media outletsand released yesterday. Led by a former Israeli special forces agent, Tal Hanan, the "mercenaries" of Team Jorge sold disinformation and hacking services to corporate and political clients. They were even caught on camera explaining it all to undercover reporters.
This exposé is interesting to me for a few reasons. Hanan claimed his organisation has activities in Greece, where I'm based. The political group I work with, DiEM25, has a party in the Greek parliament. And will be contesting elections here in the next few months.
And also: my view on this story is quite different to those in my peer group. And to be frank, it surprises and concerns me. My timeline and inbox are filled with freak-outs, as if this investigation has discovered a tumour at the heart of democracy. As of tonight, I can't find a single commentator with a following who doesn't think the same.
I think that while the story is relevant and important, people's fears are misplaced. And that the story is lacking vital context. With the caveat that I might be wrong, and that I'm happy to update my position if new facts emerge, let me explain why.
We live in a Team Jorge landscape
Jockeying for advantage, i.e. with lies and social engineering, is depressingly normal in elections and in politics more broadly. It always has been. It's bad, it frustrates democracy; it shouldn't happen. But it would be silly to pretend it doesn't. What power-hungry political group with nothing to offer voters wouldn't explore shadier options to get elected?
The actions of Team Jorge sure sound dubious: mobilising thousands of bots (fake social media profiles) to amplify their messages; planting false stories; hacking email and social media accounts of rival political advisers and party members. It's a litany of Bad Internet Behaviour.
But at their core, these are the same dodgy campaign tactics as ever. Like misleading advertising, false robocalls, jamming phone lines, redistricting, complicating voter registration, or confusing voters about election dates.
The Team Jorge stuff is just more sophisticated, automated, and massively scaled up... because today's technology allows for that. (It's the fact that this technology is so poorly understood that provides the hook for legacy media outlets to spread panic and fear.)
And for now, everything Team Jorge were caught doing is still legal (except for hacking people's accounts). Because the law is always lagging behind the technology – and sometimes never catches up.
Let's get real: the landscape today is one where tools and practices like Team Jorge's are in widespread use. With every revelation, the point hits home harder. (We can now add spying on political opponents to that, too.)
In case there was any doubt, from the piece:
“Are there, like, any elections without this shit anymore?” we asked Hanan.
“No,” he replied drily.
Stop freaking. Start working with it.
The missing context: legacy media vs Big Tech
There's a wider point, though, that relates to how these revelations are coming out.
I have no reason to doubt the facts of the Team Jorge story. And I'll admit, bot armies run by anonymous ex-Mossad agents sound disturbing.
But the narrative, drawn by the media's careful selection and emphasise of those facts, stitched together by conjecture? You know, the argument they're screaming at you between every line, about the perils of disinformation and the tech platforms that are rife with it? Treat that with skepticism.
Legacy media is in free-fall. Their business models have collapsed; they're declining in relevance. And these outlets are locked in a fight for their lives, with the entities who ran off with their customer base: tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
It's in legacy media's interest to persuade you not to trust social media as a source of news and commentary.After all, they might argue, you could be reading articles pushed by a bot army! Or engaging unknowingly with a tentacle of a nefarious Russian disinformation campaign. So why not become a subscriber to the New York Times or The Guardian or your outlet of choice, and get authoritative, official, real news?
Except – no. The most dangerous lies in recent history have come not from shadowy operatives, but from the establishment itself, via those same legacy media outlets. From the Iraq War justification to the Russian collusion story to who really blew up the Nordstream pipeline, so many critical stories in the modern era have turned out to be over-hyped, off-base or plain wrong.
And don't forget that some of these legacy media outlets engaged in similar hacking activities to Team Jorge, breaking into phones and listening to private voicemails, rather than social media accounts. Which is arguably worse.
Not convinced? Recall the 2018 revelations in legacy media on how marketing firm Cambridge Analytica helped to "hack" the 2016 Brexit and American elections. For months, news consumers were awash in details of how the firm used depraved techniques like "psychographic targeting" on Facebook to manipulate voters. The Guardian called it "the biggest scandal of our time"; much of the media followed suit.
But in 2020, the UK’s own Information Commissioner found the story to be vastly overblown. Psychographic techniques in reality didn't work; a case of Cambridge Analytica overselling their services.
Legacy media didn't cover the 2020 report much. But it's plausible that the Team Jorge story might fall apart under similar scrutiny. There's definitely plenty of speculation and unknowns contained within it.
Stop freaking. Keep an open mind.
Instead of panic, I think this story is a chance for a refresh.
Since there are Team Jorge's everywhere, it serves as a reminder to tighten up your personal security. For example, Signal is a great tool for sensitive communications; using two-factor authentication makes your online accounts harder to break into. If you want to say something confidential, keep phones out of the room.
Also, you have more control than you think over how you consume news. Yes, algorithms on tech platforms decide what shows up your feed. Yes, the ideological biases of legacy media owners and journalists decide what news their outlets carry and emphasise, and shape the narratives within. But you can push back against these dynamics by curating a feed of news from a wide range of sources that isn't gated, using a tool like Readwise Reader.
And if you're working on a campaign, or even an election, act as if your opponents are using tactics like Team Jorge. Because they probably are.
Much of the discussion on this story is around how the group “hacked elections”. But it’s not true – they didn’t manipulate election infrastructure, like voting machines, which is what would really affect election integrity. (If they had, I'd be a lot more concerned.)
Even if lawmakers understood technologies like social media and legislated accordingly, I doubt it would stop people like Team Jorge. It’d be a deterrent at best.
Legacy media are actually right here: you can’t trust what you read on social media. But their remedy is usually more moderation (which would hobble the tech platforms), and a move back towards ‘trusted sources of news’, i.e. them. That’s where I disagree. My proposal is in the last section: cut out the middlemen between you and your news.
Picking your own sources of news with a tool like Readwise Reader isn’t perfect; you’re working against your own selection bias. But it goes a long way. And as I wrote recently, there’s something delightfully subversive in not going where corporations want you to go, while taking the best of what they offer.