Facebook has removed hundreds accounts that it claims were involved in anti-vax disinformation operations from Russia.
According to the company, the accounts were targeted at India, Latin America, and the US.
It said that they tried to recruit influencers to spread false claims in order to undermine public trust in Covid-19 vaccines.
Facebook’s latest report on “coordinated and inauthentic behaviour” revealed that it discovered links between the network, Fazze, an influencer marketing agency, and Facebook. AdNow is based in Russia.
A BBC Trending investigation last month revealed that Fazze offered money to influencers in May to make false claims about the dangers associated with the Pfizer vaccination.
Facebook claims that this was the second wave in a series of attempts by the network, to spread Western vaccines.
The investigation revealed that the same network tried to paint AstraZeneca as dangerous starting in November 2020. It uses an innocent adenovirus derived from chimpanzees.
Memes were spread by accounts on the network that used images taken from Planet of Apes films to create the impression that the vaccine would make people monkeys.
These posts were posted on Facebook in Hindi at the same time that the Indian government was discussing emergency authorisation of the AstraZeneca vaccination.
Facebook claims that some fake accounts were used in the campaign, which included accounts created by account farms in Bangladesh or Pakistan.
Facebook claimed it had deleted 65 Facebook accounts and 243 Instagram profiles for violating its policy against foreign interference.
Ben Nimmo (Facebook’s threat intelligence leader) described the campaign as “a dishonest disinformation laundromat”, which planted content in a few forums online and then amplified it on other platforms.
This operation was carried out on more than a dozen different platforms. Reddit and Medium posted misleading posts, while petitions were created on change.org to express concern over the safety of AstraZeneca’s vaccine.
According to Facebook, the links were shared by a few influencers who used the same hashtags and referenced the fact that AstraZeneca was derived from the chimpanzee virus.
Despite the variety of methods employed, both waves failed to get much traction.
Jack Stubbs, Director for Investigations at social media analytics company Graphika, stated that “in addition to the previously-exposed attempts to enlist social influencers, it appears to have used a wide range of tactics in a larger effort to seed misleading narratives on the internet about Western-made Covid vascinas.”
“There was a hack-and-leak. The use of pseudo-news sites that pay-to publish and a network consisting of fake people on Facebook and Instagram.
Facebook’s campaign report found that despite all its best efforts, there were still sloppy practices. For example, Facebook reported that some memes posted in Hindi were accompanied with hashtags in Portuguese.
BBC Trending found that Fazze was a part of AdNow, a Russian company. The BBC tried repeatedly to get a comment from AdNow headquarters in Moscow but was unsuccessful. A director from AdNow’s British arm informed the BBC that Fazze was being closed down.
Responding to allegations by a German politician about discrediting Western vaccines being in the interests the Kremlin’s interest, the Russian Embassy in Britain stated: “We treat Covid-19 like a global menace and, therefore, we are not interested in undermining international efforts to fight it. With vaccinating people using the Pfizer vaccine, one of the ways to deal with the virus.”
Fazze has been contacted by the BBC again for comment, but emails to Fazze still bounce back from AdNow.
Facebook has announced that Fazze is now prohibited from their platform.