"Team Jorge" Is A Warning: The Internet Could Kill Democracy — And Quicker Than You Think
The revelations of a clandestine digital operation that provides services to destabilize nations and manipulate opinion are a wake-up call for democratic states to take urgent action, including the need to hold Big Tech accountable.
PARIS — Since the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump, we know that the age of the Internet has now taken manipulation of public opinion to industrial capacity. Thus the lesson of the “Team Jorge” affair — revealed yesterday by a global consortium of journalists — is not that these practices exist: it’s that they are scaling up.
What is at stake here is no more or no less than the survival of our democratic societies. Yes, our democracies are far from perfect, but are now clearly threatened by practices of clandestine purchase of influence, large-scale digital manipulation, and destabilization of assorted nature.
Some will play down these threats, saying that they've always existed, even before the Internet. They will say that so-called democratic states often do the same thing themselves. And that it is too easy to denounce these practices when money already plays such a big role in politics.
All this is true, but the practices that were revealed yesterday are somewhat more specific. They clearly point out the passivity of the states, and the complicity — active or not — of some of the biggest tech multinationals, which are mostly American.
Cyber army veterans
The investigation, spearheaded by the French NGO Forbidden Stories, revealed the existence of an Israeli company founded by former soldiers. The company sells services, like others, but these same services include the destabilization of an African state, the manipulation of national elections and the purchase of influence on-demand.
The tech giants' responsibility is clear.
Part of Israel's economic success is attributed to its tech industry, through former members of the Israeli Defense Force's cyber-warfare units, the best known of which is Unit 8200. Most of this activity is legitimate: the world-famous traffic information software Waze, for example, originated there.
But there are also less transparent activities, such as the famous spy software Pegasus, designed by NSO. Thanks to that software, the Saudis were able to track down the journalist Jamal Khashoggi before murdering him. The tool has also allowed Moroccan secret services to listen in to Emmanuel Macron's phone. Israel's laissez-faire attitude on privacy is an open door to every kind of abuse.
Regulation for real
The tech giants’ responsibility appears even more clearly, since it is on their platforms that Team Jorge operates. Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal — the British company linked to the U.S. far right, guilty of large-scale manipulations — the bosses of these Silicon Valley giants have had a hard time. We remember some painful Congressional hearings for Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg.
The public increasingly expects that these companies, from Facebook to Twitter to TikTok, take responsibility. And the States cannot ignore that: the platforms have to be accountable, and more and more are announcing measures to combat manipulation.
Still, we can see today that they won’t be nearly enough.
All the announcements of the last few years are just smoke and mirrors when we hear the revelations of this investigation. Either states regulate and control, or our democracies will perish in a flood of misinformation. Nobody will be able to say we weren't warned.