The campaign, which originated in Russia and started in two phases, aimed to spread vaccine conspiracies, such as dropping vaccinations that would result in humans becoming chimpanzees.
Facebook’s report of coordinated inauthentic conduct for July 2021 found that while the Indian government is considering giving Oxford-AstraZeneca (or Covishield) and Pfizer vaccines an emergency clearance, a vaccine disinformation campaign targeted India among others.
The report found that while the campaign didn’t have a wide reach, the social media platform deleted 65 Facebook and 243 Instagram accounts (followed together by at least 24,000 people) related to the campaign.
Disinformation spread through social media is of particular concern to India as coordinated campaigns target polarization, violence, and even Deaths. False online health information amid a pandemic, especially about life-saving vaccines, is extremely dangerous as it can also lead to death.
Where it comes from: According to Facebook, the campaign originated in Russia and was primarily aimed at target groups in India, Latin America and (to a much lesser extent) the United States. The investigation reportedly found links between that campaign and Fazze, a subsidiary of a UK-registered marketing company whose business was mainly conducted out of Russia. Fazze has now been banned from Facebook.
When it took place: The campaign ran in two phases – the first phase was in November and December 2020 when the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was considered for emergency approval in India, while the second phase was in May 2021 when the Pfizer vaccine was in Was considered.
Phase 1: November-December 2020
The first phase of the campaign started with posts on Facebook and Instagram mistakenly claims the AstraZeneca vaccine is dangerous because it is derived from a chimpanzee adenovirus and would transform humans into chimpanzees. There were even Change.org petitions and medium posts on the subject; however, they received little traction after Facebook. The English-language petition on Change[.]org about 550 signatures and the Hindi petition less than 900 signatures.
On Facebook: Several accounts have been created by users in Bangladesh and Pakistan who claimed to be from India. After an initial phase of non-COVID-related social media activity, these accounts were used to post on blogging platforms and petition websites. These blogs and petitions were written in English and Hindi, according to Facebook, falsely claiming that AstraZeneca tampered with its COVID-19 vaccine study data and used “untested technology” to manufacture the vaccine. Facebook also said the accounts shared memes with the ridiculous implication that the AstraZeneca vaccine would turn its subjects into chimpanzees.
On Instagram: The report described the Instagram activity as “raw and spammy”. Although there was a high volume of posts (the report said there were 10,000 posts between December 14 and 21), they often contained Portuguese and Spanish hashtags with memes in Hindi. The frequent (and probably automated) use of hashtags by the accounts was also detected and deactivated by Facebook.
Use of influencers: During this time, some health and wellness influencers posted Instagram stories using the same hashtags as the rest of the campaign, referencing the fake AstraZeneca chimpanzee transformation theory, and sharing links to the petitions the Fazze operation had created. “While it is possible, it seems highly unlikely that these influencers organically shared the work of the operation,” notes Facebook.
Phase 2: May 2021
The first phase of the disinformation campaign ended on January 6, a fortnight before the Covishield vaccine was approved. The second phase of this campaign began in May 2021 and followed a similar strategy of paying or recruiting social media influencers to encourage disinformation.
Use of YouTube: During this phase of the campaign, Facebook stated that it did not see any evidence of the campaign targeting India on its platform. However, the report revealed that an Indian YouTuber – unnamed – was successfully recruited, but after being exposed by journalists, the YouTuber deleted the controversial content.
Other target countries
In addition to India and the United States, in Latin America, people in Brazil and Argentina have been targeted. It is also said that French and German influencers were wooed by the disinformation campaign.
Above all, however, the report focuses on the correlation between the data from the two campaign phases:
The first phase:
“Instagram spam activity ended on December 21st. The Facebook accounts continued to publish at a very low level until early January – roughly one post a week. Between December 30 and January 18, the Argentine, Indian and Brazilian governments granted the state of emergency permit about the AstraZeneca vaccine. The publication of the operation was discontinued on January 6th. “
The second phase:
“This phase of the operation roughly coincided with a period when the European Medicines Agency and Brazil were discussing the approval of the Pfizer vaccine for adolescents, and came shortly after the US Food and Drug Agency approved it for adolescents on May 10th had talks with the Indian regulatory authority in early May about an “accelerated approval route” for his vaccine.
Cases of Platforms Addressing COVID-19 Misinformation
Health-related misinformation has been a major regulatory area for social media platforms, and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded its relevance.
In August 2020, a report from activist group Avaaz found that posts spreading health misinformation attracted up to 3.8 billion views on Facebook last year, peaking during the COVID-19 pandemic of 460 million views in April 2020 alone.
In October 2020, YouTube has blocked all vaccine-related content that contradicts information from “local health authorities” or the World Health Organization.
Beginning of the month, Facebook said it will not show any advertisements that “discourage” vaccination.
In December 2020, Facebook said it will begin Removing exposed misinformation about the upcoming COVID-19 vaccines in the coming weeks.
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