Facebook has banned hundreds of accounts which shared links with Russian disinformation networks that claimed Covid-19 vaccines developed by drugmakers Pfizer and AstraZeneca can turn people into chimpanzees. The network originated in Russia and targeted users primarily in India, Latin America and the US.
The Facebook investigation found that the anti-Covid vaccine campaign is linked to Fazze -- a subsidiary of a UK-registered marketing firm, whose operations were primarily conducted from Russia, the social media giant stated in its "Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour Report" released on Tuesday.
"We removed 65 Facebook accounts and 243 Instagram accounts for violating our policy against foreign interference, which is coordinated inauthentic behaviour on behalf of a foreign entity. This network operated across over a dozen platforms and forums but failed to build an audience. Our investigation found links between this campaign and Fazze. Fazze is now banned from our platform," said Ben Nimmo, Global IO Threat Intelligence Lead, and the IO Threat Intelligence Team at Facebook, in the report.
The disinformation network first posted memes and comments, in November and December 2020, claiming that the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine would turn people into chimpanzees. It then remained inactive.
After a gap of five months, in May 2021, it surfaced again and questioned the safety of the Pfizer vaccine by posting an allegedly hacked and leaked AstraZeneca document.
"Both phases coincided with periods when a number of governments, including in Latin America, India and the United States, were reportedly discussing the emergency authorizations for these respective vaccines," Nimmo said.
Facebook investigation showed that the campaign created misleading articles and petitions on multiple forums including Reddit, Medium, Change[.]org, and Medapply[.]co[.]uk. It then used fake accounts on social media, including Facebook and Instagram, to seed and amplify this off-platform content, using crude spammy tactics.
But the campaign aimed at engaging influencers with pre-existing audiences on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok to post content and use particular hashtags without disclosing the origin of the posts.
The Instagram activity, on the other hand, was "crude and spammy", and was centered around a handful of hashtags: #AstraZenecakills and #AstraZenecalies, #stopAstraZeneca. Between December 14 and December 21, about 10,000 posts that included the operation's hashtags were made, often with links to the operation's off-platform articles, Facebook said.
The campaign used fake accounts, some of which Facebook says probably originated from account farms in Bangladesh and Pakistan. The sloppy campaign also mixed languages -- such as posting Hindi language memes accompanied by hashtags in Portuguese, it added.
"Our teams continue to focus on finding and removing deceptive campaigns around the world -- whether they are foreign or domestic. We know that influence operations will keep evolving in response to our enforcement, and new deceptive behaviours will emerge," Facebook said in the report.
"We are making progress rooting out this abuse, but as we've said before -- it's an ongoing effort and we're committed to continually improving to stay ahead," it added.