Facebook caught a marketing firm paying influencers to criticize COVID-19 vaccines

The campaign was ‘sloppy’ and not very successful, according to the company.

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Facebook has banned a marketing firm for its involvement in a disinformation campaign that used influencers and fake accounts to undermine COVID-19 vaccines. The company removed 65 Facebook accounts and 243 Instagram accounts associated with a campaign, which also recruited unwitting influencers to boost its message.

According to Facebook, the network “originated in Russia,” but was linked to Fazze, a subsidiary of a UK-registered marketing firm that operates from Russia. The accounts primarily targeted India and Latin America, though the United States was also targeted “to a much lesser extent.” The campaign came in “two distinct waves,” according to Facebook.

“First, in November and December 2020, the network posted memes and comments claiming that the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine would turn people into chimpanzees,” the company wrote in a report. “Five months later, in May 2021, it questioned the safety of the Pfizer vaccine by posting an allegedly hacked and leaked AstraZeneca document.” Facebook didn’t speculate on who hired Fazze or what their motive was, but Ben Nimmo, the company’s Global Threat Intelligence Lead for Influence Operations, noted that the activity “coincided roughly with times when regulators and some of the target countries were discussing emergency authorization for each vaccine.”

Ultimately, the campaign was “sloppy” with “quite low” engagement, according to Nimmo. The exception was the paid posts from legitimate influencers who got caught up in the campaign, as those posts “attracted some limited attention.” However, it was influencers who exposed the campaign, after a handful publicly disclosed that Fazze had offered to pay them to “claim that Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine is deadly,” according to The New York Times.

While Facebook regularly publishes details around inauthentic behavior and foreign interference on its platform, this is one of the first that centered around COVID-19 vaccines. The topic has become a thorny issue for Facebook, as officials have blamed social media for not doing enough to prevent vaccine disinformation from spreading.

In a call with reporters, Facebook’s Head of Security Policy, Nathaniel Gleicher. said that the effort, though unsuccessful, highlights how disinformation campaigns are evolving. “Influence operations increasingly span many platforms and target influential voices because running successful campaigns with large numbers of fake accounts on a single network has become harder and harder,” he said.