See which methods and mechanisms constitute an influence operation, and get an overview of what investigative journalists have uncovered about Psy-Group.
Influence operations originated as a military weapon used to exercise power, and is often called PSYOPs (Psychological Operations). There is no uniform definition of what an influence operation is, but both the EU and NATO agree that influence operations are a problem (1,2).
This problem becomes even greater when such a weapon is used outside the military, and is accessible to private players. Two of America’s best investigative journalists, Ronan Farrow and Adam Entous, raised awareness about this development in an article in the New Yorker Magazine, February 2019 (3). While working on the case they discovered that the Norwegian Brunstad Christian Church (BCC) was subjected to an influence operation carried out by the Israeli paramilitary company Psy-Group.
At the time, the operation had already done great damage to BCC, without it being possible to track where the attacks were coming from. The company has organized its activities in a way that does not allow them to be traced back to its authors.
The structure of the business changes
Psy-Group was established in 2014, and has since become a world leader in intelligence related influence operations (4).
The founders come from the Israeli military, the Israel Defense Forces; a former lieutenant colonel named Royi Burstien, and Joel Zamel (5). Zamel worked on psychological operations in the military and is described as a person who “operates in the depths of the sea where sunlight ends” (6). Investigative journalist Scott Stedman has described what these two individuals have in common is they are driven by the pursuit of money (ibid.).
Several former Mossad agents were on the employee list (3).
The company was closed down in 2018 in the wake of the Mueller investigation in the US, but according to Stedman, the business continues in other organizations. The ownership of the business is structured so that individuals are swapped every three years. According to American journalists, it is highly likely the ownership of the companies will lead back to a Russian billionaire named Mikhail Slipenchuk. From 2011-2016, he was a member of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house, in Putin’s party; United Russia (6).
This is how reality is shaped
The service that Psy-Group offers deals with narrative warfare, or as their slogan says: “Shape reality” (4). It takes place through information wars to blacken or discredit people or organizations which their customers have designated as targets, without revealing the customer behind it. On their website, which has now been closed down, they boasted of being able to design processes in several phases that shape the reality of how their customers’ targets appear on the internet (7).
However, their methods of operation are extreme.
How does Psy-Group work?
- Establish a narrative in line with the customer’s wishes
The first step is to design a narrative that describes the alternative reality to be established (11). Facts can be distorted, so that the perceptions in the target group becomes the way the customer wants it. When an organization is attacked, it is typically done by blackening the leadership. It will discredit the entire organization (8).
- Collection of existing data
The next step is data collection. It happens on three levels: data that is publicly available, intrusion into social media and physical devices, and via “boots on the ground”.
- Recruitment of subcontractors and sources that support your narrative
Recruitment for the operation often takes place through subcontractors who either become accomplices or so-called «useful idiots», who carry out parts of the assignment, consciously or unconsciously (9,10). Psy-Group also implements operational henchmen and visible influencers to influence the public and decision-makers, or to conduct telephone operations (6).
- Production and dissemination of data online
Negative campaigns are rolled out online via targeted websites that end up on *** leaks.com and the like (3). Social media and fake profiles are used to spread fabricated news articles, so that the narrative is established. By repeating the message over and over again, human psychological mechanisms will cause it to be perceived as a truth.
- Media coverage that supports the narrative
The operation’s narrative is confirmed again via coverage in leading media channels with high trust in public opinion. Co-runners in the operation build relationships with the media and take every opportunity to get media coverage that supports the narrative (7).
- Utilize media coverage to influence social institutions and decision-makers
The media coverage is further used in the manipulation of social institutions to carry out assignments in favor of Psy-Group’s clients. This is done by blacklisting those who are the target of the operation as well as targeted attacks on banks to lead to criminal investigation (11).
The list above is not exhaustive, and it is difficult to document a connection with an operation. Others who have been exposed to influence operations from Psy-Group have at the same time experienced both fires and threats, in the same way as BCC and key people have. In the article in The New Yorker Magazine, a former Psy-Group employee is quoted as saying that he has never in any way been involved in starting a physical fire (3).
How can companies like Psy-Group do this?
Companies such as Psy-Group have room to maneuver because legislation is outdated and because decision-makers are not very willing, or have sufficient knowledge, to deal with the threat such operations pose to democracy (6). Psy-Group thus operates outside the law. There are no laws that regulate their business. When world-leading intelligence companies go their separate ways with such a ruthless approach, it becomes a serious security threat.
In Israel, criminal prosecution of Psy-Group founders for exporting military secrets without permission is now under discussion (12). At the same time, it is being considered whether influencing operations can be equated with terrorism, because the mechanisms are the same, namely fear and terrorism.
When an operation is exposed
If an operation gets blown, it is vital to systematically deny the entire operation (13). Those involved with Psy-Group will at all times protect their trade secrets, and this loyalty makes it very difficult to obtain information about the operation. Those involved will claim that the operation has never taken place, and Psy-Group’s activities will be downplayed as a PR agency.
Information is nevertheless leaked, possibly through former employees, or people who have been used without being aware of it (9). This is how some information has reached BCC, after meticulous research and private investigation. The police have not had the means or opportunities to help. They point to a lack of legislation, and that a large part of the operation has been carried out from other countries and is therefore outside their jurisdiction.
What happens next?
A naive reader will argue that Psy-Group terminated all operations when the company was dissolved in 2018, when it was investigated for interference in Trump’s 2016 presidential election. The theory that the activities has ceased to take place is mainly promoted by people who have a vested interest in maintaining Psy-Group’s alternative reality.
In the US, investigative journalist Scott Stedman from Forensic News has shown that Psy-Group’s activities are continuing in similar companies, including Athiri (6).
As The New Yorker Magazine discovered, private intelligence is an exponentially growing industry. There is a large market of customers who are willing to do anything and pay anything to achieve their goal (3).
Consequences BCC has experienced after being targeted by Psy-Group ;
- Criminalizing and distorted information about the religious community has been systematically spread in the Norwegian and Dutch media and has damaged our relationships, as well as the image of BCC in the public sphere.
- Incorrect information spread through various media, for example, Dagens Næringsliv (leading Norwegian business news media) has led to our banking partner for the past 60 years attempting to quit our church community as a customer.
- Profiled members have been investigated by Økokrim for three years where the material that emerged as a result of the influence operation was part of the case file, before they were fully cleared of any wrongdoing.
The next time, it could be a political party, a company or an individual who is affected. When companies such as Psy-Group can set an agenda in Norwegian society, then it threatens not only the legal security of those involved, but in the long run also the structures on which our democracy is built.
- Cullenm, P. & Reichborn-Kjennerud, E. (2017). Understanding Hybrid Warfare. The Multinational Capability Development Campaign (MCDC) Countering Hybrid Warfare Project (NUPI).
- Utne, R. & Førsund, B. (2019). Påvirkningsoperasjoner: Forsterkende og splittende mekanismer. Fagnotat. UTSYN – Forum for utenriks og sikkerhet
- Farrow, R. & Entous, A. (2019). Private Mossad for hire. The New Yorker Magazine
- Psy Group Brochure
- Wikipedia: Psy-Group
- Stedman, S. (2020) Israeli private intelligence company under investigation in the US. Forensic News – bok
- Screenshots fra tidligere webside. Presentasjon slide 10
- Hamiti, U. (2016). The War of US against ISIS in Psychological Warfare and Internet as the New Frontline. European Journal of interdisciplinary studies. January-April 2016 Volume 2, Issue 2
- Farrow, R. (2019). Catch and kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators. Little, Brown Book Group
- NRK beta (2019). Nyttige idioter og medløpere – slik virker russiske påvirkningsoperasjoner
- Psy-Group rapport on BCC 2017
- The Times of Israel
- The New York Times-Documentary: “Operation Infection: How Russia perfected the art of war”