Facebook recently removed hundreds of accounts on its platforms for 'coordinated inauthentic behaviour' on behalf of a foreign entity
In their latest report summarising actions taken in July, Facebook said the number was inclusive of a Russian network aimed at discrediting COVID-19 vaccines worldwide.
The campaign was asserted to have been masterminded by influencer marketing firm Fazze – itself a subsidiary of UK-registered company AdNow – which has now been banned on the site.
In total, 65 Facebook accounts and 243 Instagram accounts were removed for violating terms relating to foreign influence on their site.
"This campaign functioned as a disinformation laundromat," said Facebook's threat intelligence lead Ben Nimmo, who authored the report.
He said that Fazze's campaign created misleading articles and petitions on multiple third party forums, and subsequently used Facebook and Instagram to amplify a fake narrative with "crude spammy tactics".
The company says that the campaign started during the period when governments were mulling emergency authorisation of the AstraZeneca vaccine last year
The regions of the world that were targeted include the USA, Latin America, and especially India.
The first wave of postings was initiated between November and December 2020, by accounts likely to have originated in account farms in neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh, but posed as Indian as to purport legitimacy.
After pushing out a debunked theory that claims AstraZeneca manipulated their vaccine trial data, the network of accounts then centred around an absurd claim that its vaccine will turn recipients into monkeys.
Many included accompanying scenes from the 1968 movie "Planet of the Apes", and a large proportion of the memes were worded in Hindi.
According to the BBC, this was an attempt to falsely characterise the vaccine as dangerous, as it is derived from a harmless adenovirus taken from chimpanzees.
After months of inactivity, the operation resumed to cast doubt on the Pfizer vaccine.
However, this time, a few influencers spoke out to expose the whole charade.
The second wave of the disinformation campaign continued in May this year to make the dubious claim that Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine causes "a much higher casualty rate".
Around this time, the European Medicines Agency, Brazil, India, and the USA were all in varying stages of study to approve the use of the Pfizer shot on their citizens.
The crux of this wild allegation is based on a 12-page "leaked" document which compared vaccine efficacies – claimed to be a suppressed AstraZeneca document – but was later revealed to be "cobbled together from different sources and taken out of context", per the BBC.
After another mass creation of fake accounts, and widely sharing the fake document in various health-related groups to lukewarm reception, the Russian company began to reach out directly to influencers.
However, this would be their undoing.
Two European YouTubers exposed Fazze's offer, a reported 2,000 Euros, and began a wave of public scrutiny into the whole operation, ultimately leading to the account removals.
"It started with an email. I was shocked, then I was curious, what's behind all that?" said Mirko Drotschmann, one of the Youtubers who went public.
French YouTuber Léo Grasset was another who was approached by Fazze, but was sent an email saying they were acting on a client who wished to remain anonymous.
In concluding their report, Facebook reassured that the campaign was largely ineffectual, with virtually all of their posts receiving zero likes.
However, the incident sparked pertinent questions which need answers.
Ben Nimmo said that Fazze's most successful endeavors were a Change.org petition which only gained 550 signatures, and the Hindi-language equivalent only racking up 900.
As for their native platforms of Facebook and Instagram, the response was largely muted.
However, the debacle reaffirms Facebook's earlier prediction that influence operations are increasingly targeting authentic influential voices to carry their messages.
After banning Fazze off their platforms, and removing all of the associated accounts, Nimmo says they have also notified authorities of their findings for further action.
Nimmo says that there are still unanswered questions regarding the covert disinformation operation, chief among them are "who commissioned Fazze to run it?"
Recently, another Facebook offshoot Whatsapp launched a new disappearing media function, but certain quarters are concerned: