Facebook exposes Russian disinformation campaign targeted at rival vaccines

The COVID-19 vaccination roll out is still a target for disinformation. This July, report on Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior Facebook team named Russia the world leader of fake news production and blamed Moscow of conducting disinformation campaign which was carried out in two phases, in 2020 and 2021.

“The AstraZeneca Phase”

From November to December 2020, messages suggesting that AstraZeneca vaccine was developed with a use of unreliable technology so people inoculated with it would turn into chimpanzees have been spreading in the web. These messages circulated in Indian and Latin American domains, via such platforms as: Medium, Change[.]org, YouTube, TikTok; accounts in social media Facebook, Instagram and Reddit. For instance, one of the petitions published on the website Change[.]org was titled “We want to live!”€, the author claimed that AstraZeneca vaccine threats people lives and blamed the manufacturers of hiding the results of clinical trials. There was a network of fake accounts spreading memes which claimed that AstraZeneca vaccine would turn people into chimpanzees. Many of such memes used shots from the movie of the sixties “€œPlanet of the Apes”€.

The activity deployed on Instagram was “€œcrude and spammy”€, Facebook`€™s report says. It burst via a number of “€œmatching”€ hashtags: #AstraZenecakills, #AstraZenecalies, #stopAstraZeneca, #AstraZenecamata and #AstraZenecamente (the Portuguese equivalents). The spamming stopped on December 21, however, Facebook accounts still continued sharing fake content, though, less intensively, publishing about one post per a week.

Renee DiResta, a technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, mentioned that AstraZeneca disinformation campaign took place when Russian state media accounts (for instance, Sputnik V account in Twitter and Russian RT news media outlet) have been promoting their country’s vaccine simultaneously boosting misleading stories about other jabs. The conclusions drawn by Facebook’€™s team correspond with this statement. The report says that between December 30 and January 18 the governments of India, Argentina and Brazil have granted emergency authorization to AstraZeneca vaccine. As a result, on January 6, the operation of spreading fake content in the web had been eventually stopped.

“€œThe Pfizer Phase”

The second phase took place in May, after five months of inactivity. This cross-platform operation targeted Pfizer vaccine – the widely shared narrative questioned the safety of the jab and consisted of the false claims that Pfizer inoculations result in much higher “casualty rate” in comparison to other vaccines. The phase began on May 14 with three articles published on ethicalhacker[.]org, Medium and Reddit. The Facebook team characterized the content as a low quality one. The articles saying that AstraZeneca company was hacked and a schedule with real “casualty rate” leaked to the web were published one by one within 90 minutes. The operation targeted audiences in the US and Brazil, however, it had not managed to produce considerable response.

The report specifies that Pfizer phase was launched at the time when the European Medicines Agency and Brazil were discussing the approval of Pfizer vaccine for adolescents, and came just after the US Food and Drug Agency approved it for the same purpose on May 10.

The Common Denominator

Both phases were performed by the users of social media recruited by a UK-registered marketing firm Fazze which operated from Russia. As Facebook report says, Fazze reached influencers on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok in several countries and asked them to publish and spread anti-vaccine content for payment. Open-source reports confirm that Fazze sent emails to influencers in France and Germany and hired YouTube influencer in India. There were hundreds of accounts traced back to Fazze, they shared links to the petitions that the Fazze network had created. However, by the end of May, the firm deleted most of its content, the staff removed any references to the compromised firm from their social media bios.

The disclosure of the cross-platform anti-vaccine disinformation campaign was followed by the removal of 65 Facebook accounts and 243 Instagram accounts from Russia that were proven to be linked with Fazze.

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