The campaign which originated in Russia and was launched in two phases sought to spread vaccine conspiracies like taking the shots would lead to humans turning into chimpanzees.
Facebook’s Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour report for July 2021 has revealed that while the Indian government was considering granting emergency approval to Oxford-AstraZeneca (or Covishield) and Pfizer vaccines, a vaccine disinformation campaign targetted India, among other countries.
The report revealed that while the campaign did not have much reach, the social media platform took down 65 Facebook and 243 Instagram accounts (collectively followed by at least 24,000 people) related to the campaign.
Disinformation spread through social media has been of particular concern to India with coordinated campaigns resulting in polarisation, violence, and even deaths. Online health misinformation amidst a pandemic, especially about life-saving vaccines, is extremely dangerous as it could also lead to deaths.
Details about the campaign
Where it originated: According to Facebook, the campaign originated in Russia and targetted audiences primarily in India, Latin America, and (to a much lesser extent) the United States. Its investigation reportedly found links between this campaign and Fazze, a subsidiary of a UK-registered marketing firm, whose operations were primarily conducted from Russia. Fazze has now been banned from Facebook.
When it took place: The campaign took place in two phases – the first phase was in November and December 2020 when the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was being considered for emergency approval in India while the second phase was in May 2021 when the Pfizer vaccine was being considered.
Phase 1: November-December 2020
The first phase of the campaign started with posts on Facebook and Instagram falsely claiming that the AstraZeneca vaccine was dangerous because it was derived from a chimpanzee adenovirus and would lead to conversions of humans into chimpanzees. There were even Change.org petitions and Medium posts created on the subject; however, they received little traction according to Facebook. The English-language petition on Change[.]org gained about 550 signatures and the Hindi-language petition gained less than 900 signatures.
On Facebook: Multiple accounts were formed by users in Bangladesh and Pakistan claiming to be from India. After an initial period of non-COVID-related social media activity, these accounts were used to post on blogging platforms and petition websites. These blogs and petitions, according to Facebook, were written in English and Hindi and falsely claimed that AstraZeneca manipulated its COVID-19 vaccine trial data and used an ‘untried technology’ to create the vaccine. Facebook also said that the accounts shared memes with the ridiculous insinuation that the AstraZeneca vaccine would turn its subjects into chimpanzees.
On Instagram: The report described the Instagram activity as ‘crude and spammy’. While there was a high volume of posts (the report said that between December 14 and 21 there were 10,000 posts), they often contained Portuguese and Spanish hashtags with Hindi language memes. The accounts’ frequent (and likely automated) use of hashtags was also detected and disabled by Facebook.
Use of influencers: During this time, a few health and well-being influencers posted Instagram stories that used the same hashtags as the rest of the campaign, referenced the false AstraZeneca-chimpanzee transformation theory, and shared links to the petitions that the Fazze operation had created. “While possible, it appears highly unlikely that these influencers shared the operation’s work organically,” Facebook notes.
Phase 2: May 2021
The first phase of the disinformation campaign stopped posting by January 6, a fortnight before the Covishield vaccine received approval. The second phase of this campaign began in May 2021 and followed a similar strategy of paying or recruiting social media influencers to promote disinformation.
Use of YouTube: During this phase of the campaign, Facebook said that it did not see evidence, on its platform, of the campaign targetting India. However, the report revealed that an Indian YouTuber – who is not named- was successfully recruited but, after being exposed by journalists, the YouTuber deleted the controversial content.
Other countries that were targetted
Apart from India and the USA, in Latin America people in Brazil and Argentina were targetted. It also says that French and German influencers were courted by the disinformation campaign.
However, most notably, the report raises the correlation between the dates of the two campaign phases:
The first phase:
“The Instagram spam activity ended on December 21. The Facebook accounts continued posting at a very low level — roughly a post a week — into early January. Between December 30 and January 18, the Argentinian, Indian, and Brazilian governments granted emergency authorization to the AstraZeneca vaccine. On January 6, the operation stopped posting.”
The second phase:
“This phase of the operation coincided roughly with a period when the European Medicines Agency and Brazil were discussing approving the Pfizer vaccine for adolescents, and came just after the US Food and Drug Agency approved it for adolescents on May 10. Pfizer was also reportedly in talks with the Indian regulator in early May over an “expedited approval pathway” for its vaccine.”
Instances of platforms tackling COVID-19 misinformation
Health-related misinformation has been a key area of regulation for social media platforms and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has only acerbated the importance.
In August 2020, a report by activist group Avaaz found that posts spreading health misinformation attracted as many as 3.8 billion views on Facebook in the last year, peaking during the COVID-19 pandemic, with 460 million views in April 2020 alone.
In October 2020, YouTube barred any vaccine-related content that contradicts information from “local health authorities” or the World Health Organisation.
Earlier that month, Facebook said that it will not show any advertisements that “discourage” getting vaccinated.
In December 2020, Facebook said it will start removing debunked misinformation about the upcoming COVID-19 vaccines in the coming weeks.
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