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Malaysian politics among subjects of Israeli firm's disinformation business to sway polls

An undercover investigation reveals how the company's services may have influenced elections through fake social media profiles and massive disinformation drives.

3 minute read
An undercover investigation has revealed how an Israeli firm worked to influence elections throughout the world by spreading disinformation on the internet and social media. Photo: Pexels
An undercover investigation has revealed how an Israeli firm worked to influence elections throughout the world by spreading disinformation on the internet and social media. Photo: Pexels

Malaysia is among scores of countries whose elections may have been affected by an Israeli company operating to influence polls worldwide by spreading disinformation, a joint investigation by journalists from several Western media outlets has revealed.

This comes less than three months after Malaysians voted at the 15th general election, resulting in an unprecedented hung parliament in a political impasse which ended with Pakatan Harapan's Anwar Ibrahim being named as prime minister.

The report did not state if any role had been played to influence the polls last year, but it did point to the 1MDB scandal at the heart of the previous general election in 2018, when the services of the Israeli firm were sought to spread disinformation to discredit a whistleblower.

French daily Le Monde, one of 30 news organisations which participated in the investigation, said "Team Jorge" was engaged by "unknown clients" to run a disinformation campaign against Xavier Justo, the Swiss banker whose revelations in 2015 led to the uncovering of the 1MDB scandal.

Former Petrosaudi director Xavier Justo.
Former Petrosaudi director Xavier Justo.

The corruption scandal was largely blamed for the election defeat of then prime minister Najib Razak in 2018.

According to Le Monde, the campaign to discredit Justo surfaced at the end of 2020, with his replication on a website and a YouTube channel where he was presented as an untrustworthy individual who was out to make money.

"The website and the YouTube channel were then widely distributed on social media, by the network of avatars of Team Jorge, as part of a larger operation of defamation, calling Justo a thief, a drug addict, a blackmailer," the paper said, adding that the real goal of the campaign was unclear. 

Malaysia has historically been a strong opponent of Israel owing to its occupation of Palestine, with the Jewish state often thrust into domestic politics.

In the last election campaign, Anwar was challenged to state that PKR was not infiltrated by Israeli elements, following the arrest of a group of Malaysians said to have been hired by Israeli secret service Mossad to abduct a Palestinian computer programmer wanted by Israel in September.

PKR had then distanced itself from one of the kidnappers, Raibafie Amdan, who was spotted waving a party flag in a photo taken a few years earlier which was shared on social media.

Anwar's critics nonetheless pressed him to make known his stand on Israel, citing a past statement in support of "all efforts to protect the security of the state of Israel".

The top editor of influential Israeli newspaper Haaretz said following Anwar's rise to the top office that it could signal a new chapter in the Jewish state's relationship with Malaysia, where every succeeding government had backed the Palestinian struggle.

"Israel would love closer ties with Kuala Lumpur. Could this be the opportunity?" chief editor Esther Solomon said in comments on Twitter, just days after Anwar was sworn in.

The revelations on "Team Jorge" are reminiscent of the scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, the British political consulting firm which was shut down following allegations of data leaks from Facebook users as well as the use of blackmail to run election campaigns in several countries.

In 2020, leaked files revealed that the company, through its parent firm SCL Group, had pitched a proposal to Umno in 2013 under then party chief Najib Razak to influence the voting pattern in 40 seats at the 2018 general election.

Leaked files also revealed that then Umno deputy president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was to have a breakfast meeting with SCL Group representatives in New York in 2016. 

The Umno-led Barisan Nasional government however denied engaging Cambridge Analytica for its campaign.

Assortment of smear services

The investigation into "Team Jorge" was carried out by undercover journalists posing as potential clients who approached Tal Hanan, a former Israeli special forces operative heading the company, and secretly videotaped him.

"We are now involved in one election in Africa... We have a team in Greece and a team in [the] Emirates [UAE]... You follow the leads. [We have completed] 33 presidential-level campaigns, 27 of which were successful," Hanan was quoted as saying by The Guardian, another news outlet involved in the investigation.

Hanan's firm offers a range of services including "smear and misinformation campaigns" ranging from email hacking to spreading rumours using fake news sites as well as through fake profiles on social media networks.

Among its products is Advanced Impact Media Solutions or Aims, a software that can control more than 30,000 fake accounts on various social media platforms for the rapid spread of disinformation.