By using avatars, Facebook, fake websites, and fake news, new private intelligence firms staffed by Israeli intelligence personnel are waging wars on perception to alter targeted groups’ beliefs and behavior. In their story for The New Yorker, Adam Entous and Ronan Farrow profile one firm called Psy-Group to delve deep into this disturbing frontier, which one Israeli intelligence officer described as “a place where wars are fought, elections are won, and terror is promoted.” Psy-Group wanted to tap the growing, lucrative field of American elections. So why was it planning an “influence campaign” over a hospital board election in rural Tulare, California?
The 2016 election changed the calculus. In the U.S., investigators pieced together how Russian operatives had carried out a scheme to promote their preferred candidate and to stoke divisions within U.S. society. Senior Israeli officials, like their American counterparts, had been dubious about the effectiveness of influence campaigns. Russia’s operation in the U.S. convinced Tamir Pardo, the former Mossad director, and others in Israel that they, too, had misjudged the threat. “It was the biggest Russian win ever. Without shooting one bullet, American society was torn apart,” Pardo said. “This is a weapon. We should find a way to control it, because it’s a ticking bomb. Otherwise, democracy is in trouble.”
Some of Pardo’s former colleagues took a more mercenary approach. Russia had shown the world that information warfare worked, and they saw a business opportunity. In early 2017, as Trump took office, interest in Psy-Group’s services seemed to increase. Law firms, one former employee said, asked Psy-Group to “come back in and tell us again what you are doing, because we see this ability to affect decisions that we weren’t fully aware of.” Another former Psy-Group employee put it more bluntly: “The Trump campaign won this way. If the fucking President is doing it, why not us?”