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Facebook bans Russian disinformation network that claimed coronavirus vaccines turn people into chimpanzees

Facebook said it shut down an operation that sought to spread coronavirus vaccine hoaxes. (Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)

Facebook has removed hundreds of accounts it said were part of a disinformation campaign largely run out of Russia that also used social media influencers to peddle fake claims about coronavirus vaccines, including that some shots could turn people into chimpanzees.

Investigators said they traced the origins of the campaign to Fazze, a subsidiary of a U.K.-registered marketing firm whose operations were primarily conducted from Russia. The operation “targeted audiences primarily in India, Latin America and, to a much lesser extent, the United States,” according to a report published Tuesday by the social media company.

Facebook called the anti-vaccine campaign a “disinformation laundromat,” whose efforts spanned Reddit, Medium and, as well as Facebook and its sister platform Instagram, where fake accounts were said to have amplified disinformation. Influencers on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok were also asked to post misleading content and use certain hashtags, the company said.

The Menlo Park, Calif.-based company banned Fazze because these actions violated Facebook’s policy against foreign interference through “coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign entity,” it said.

Fazze made headlines earlier this year when influencers including French YouTuber Léo Grasset — also known as DirtyBiology — said they had received a proposal from the agency to baselessly claim online that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is dangerous and more lethal than the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot. That effort reportedly triggered an investigation by French authorities into the potential involvement of the Russian state.

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Fazze and its parent agency, AdNow, didn’t immediately return a request for comment. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in response to past claims of Russian vaccine disinformation that “Russia is not misinforming anyone, Russia proudly talks about its successes and Russia shares its successes regarding the first-ever registered vaccine in the world.”

In May, Facebook said it had uncovered disinformation campaigns in more than 50 countries dating to 2017, when it began cracking down on political actors seeking to manipulate public debate on its platform. The company accused Russia of being the largest producer of disinformation.

Russia is still the biggest player in disinformation, Facebook says

Facebook has banned misinformation about the novel coronavirus, including claims about false cures and misleading representations about the number of covid-linked deaths, from its platform.

In July, President Biden accused the company of “killing people” by allowing the spread of misinformation about coronavirus vaccines. He later softened his criticism, though he still called on Facebook to be more aggressive in combating the problem.

An analysis by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit, of a large sample of anti-vaccine content on Facebook and Twitter found that the majority of the posts could be attributed to just 12 individuals.

Those influencers and others had all significantly increased their followers during the pandemic. Facebook says it has removed more than 18 million posts containing misinformation about covid-19, but it does not share the number of people who have been exposed to such content. That number is likely far greater.

Facebook investigators said the Russian-linked campaign began in November and December last year, when the network allegedly posted memes and comments that falsely claimed the Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca vaccine could turn people into chimpanzees.

This spring, Fazze allegedly moved to undermine the Pfizer vaccine by posting a purportedly “hacked and leaked” AstraZeneca document that made the misleading claim that the Pfizer shot had a much higher mortality rate than other vaccines, Facebook said.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has been linked in an extremely small number of cases to fatal blood clots. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, like other shots approved for use in the United States, has undergone vigorous safety testing.

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Facebook said the two waves of the campaign coincided with authorities in Latin America, India and the United States “reportedly discussing the emergency authorizations for these respective vaccines.”

In April, a month before the second tranche of the disinformation campaign, the Russian-developed Sputnik V vaccine took a blow when Brazilian health regulators issued a scathing rebuke and declined to approve the shot. The World Health Organization has not authorized Sputnik V for emergency use, though roughly 70 countries have approved its administration during the pandemic.

Facebook said questions about the anti-vaccine campaign remain, such as who allegedly commissioned Fazze to run it.

Elizabeth Dwoskin in San Francisco contributed reporting.

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