What’s a former elite Israeli secret agent looking for new career opportunities supposed to do? To answer that question, The New Yorker profiled Psy-Group, a company comprising former Israeli intelligence agents who applied their well-honed spycraft skills to creating a now-familiar mix of fake social media accounts and inflammatory websites in an attempt to sway an election in the United States.
In the years since it was founded in 2014, Psy-Group allegedly sought out work with the major US political parties and other big clients—but it also focused on smaller players. It even got involved in a contested hospital board race in Tulare, Calif. Didn’t hear about that one? Not surprising. Tulare County, while number one in the country in dairy production, is not frequently featured in national media, much less in reports about elite spy units.
Russian agents used massive data hacks, fake social media accounts, Twitter bots, and more to try to tip the scales in favor of Donald Trump in 2016. Psy-Group, meanwhile, had to start somewhere. The New Yorker reports the group’s agents allegedly set up websites with names like Tulareleaks.com, which trashed a hospital-board challenger who was running to rid the near-bankrupt hospital system of a highly compensated management company.
Presumably local residents (whom the real locals didn’t seem to know) began a social media smear campaign against the challenger. “I guess you might see that in a big city or on a national level,” Tony Maldonado, a reporter at the local Valley Voice, told The New Yorker. “But to see it in a small town, about a hospital board in Tulare, is just insane.”
Psy-Group had its sights set beyond rural and dusty Tulare’s hospital board. According to The New Yorker, the company made at least three overtures to Trump’s 2016 campaign. “We didn’t use their services,” a campaign official told the magazine. Still, the company’s involvement in the presidential election is now being scrutinized by the federal investigators.
Psy-Group has shut down, but similar companies are thriving in Israel, where government-mandated military service results in a steady stream of well-trained intelligence operatives.
And of course, online election interference is likely to continue to be a major issue in the United States and around the world. A recent Politico report suggests that a shadowy disinformation campaign directed at candidates for the Democratic US presidential nomination can already be seen on social media. The techniques have been refined—Russian agents, after all, were caught in 2016—but the signs once again point to “foreign state actors” being involved.