2023 Excellence in Collaboration and Partnerships winner

Story Killers

About the Project

Story Killers is a months-long, worldwide investigation that exposes the inner workings of the global, secretive world of disinformation mercenaries.

Its starting point was the unfinished work of journalist Gauri Lankesh, murdered in 2017 in Bangalore, days before she planned to publish an article about disinformation.

This investigation was the result of a global effort of more than 100 journalists from 30 media outlets, including The Guardian, The Washington Post, OCCRP, Der Spiegel and others, coordinated by Forbidden Stories.

Pursuing Lankesh’s intuition that fake news constitute a global industry that can be used as a “weapon” to destabilize democracies, our consortium tracked the companies selling disinfo-for-hire services aimed at influencing opinions, manipulating elections, destroying reputations and burying the truth. The result of six months of collaborative investigation, “Story Killers” reveals the systemic, global nature of this industry and the companies offering disinformation services to the highest bidder – be it a dictator, a crooked politician or a drug trafficker.

The first part of this investigation, “In the age of false news,” recounts the story of Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh and explores new leads in her murder case.

‘Team Jorge’: In the heart of a global disinformation machine” – reveals for the first time the existence of an ultra-secretive Israeli black ops group known as “Team Jorge” that was allegedly involved in manipulating dozens of presidential elections around the world, sophisticated phone hacking of high-level politicians and the development of a previously unreported tool for diffusing disinformation at scale, called AIMS. Our reporting revealed that this group was hired by the now-infamous marketing firm Cambridge Analytica, including to work on the 2015 presidential election in Nigeria.

In “Masters of perception,” the third installment of the project, we investigated another Israeli influence company, Percepto International, which in 2020 orchestrated a sophisticated manipulation campaign targeting the International Committee of the Red Cross in Burkina Faso, presumably at the request of the Burkinabe government.

In the US, digital influencers targeted a Gulf-based journalist online. Our article “From Trump supporters to a human rights attorney: the digital influencers who harassed a journalist” exposes how a Saudi prince was likely paying one of these influencers to publish defamatory tweets.

As part of Story Killers, we also published an exclusive interview with a former project manager for a digital communications agency that offered not only election campaign management and social-network monitoring, but also off-the-record services, such as avatar accounts used to promote a client or discredit an opponent or placement of articles in reputable media. We published this interview, “Changing the course of elections is the primary mission of influence agencies,” in-full.

Judges Comments

This is a vital, global story that could only be told by such a collaboration. The project melds two of the biggest concerns of our time: threats to the safety of journalists and freedom of the press, and the growth of disinformation and how it undermines our communities. The breadth of the collaboration is important and the results are revelatory.