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Facebook bans Russian firm behind Pfizer and AstraZeneca smear campaign

A network of 65 Facebook accounts and 243 Instagram accounts was traced back to Fazze, an advertising and marketing firm working in Russia.

Image: Dominic Lipinski/PA

FACEBOOK SAYS IT has removed hundreds of accounts linked to a mysterious advertising agency operating out of Russia that sought to pay social media influencers to smear Covid-19 vaccines made by Pfizer and AstraZeneca.

A network of 65 Facebook accounts and 243 Instagram accounts was traced back to Fazze, an advertising and marketing firm working in Russia on behalf of an unknown client.

The network used fake accounts to spread misleading claims about the safety of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines. One claimed Oxford/AstraZeneca’s jab would turn a person into a chimpanzee.

The fake accounts targeted users in India, Latin America and, to a lesser extent, the US, using several social media platforms including Facebook and Instagram.

Russia has been actively marketing its own Covid-19 vaccine, Sputnik V, abroad in what some analysts see as an effort to score geopolitical points.

Facebook representatives did not speculate on the possible motivation behind the smear campaign.

health-coronavirus Source: Press Association Images

The Fazze network also contacted social media influencers in several countries with offers to pay them for reposting the misleading content. That ploy backfired when influencers in Germany and France exposed the network’s offer.

Along with removing the network’s accounts, Facebook also banned Fazze from its platforms.

Fazze’s effort did not get much traction online, with some posts failing to get even a single response, but while the campaign may have fizzled out, it is noteworthy because of its effort to enlist social media influencers, according to Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy.

“Although it was sloppy and didn’t have very good reach, it was an elaborate setup,” he said.

As social media companies have improved their ability to spot and remove fake accounts, disinformation campaigns have had to adjust.

health-coronavirus Source: Press Association Images

Paying social media influencers to repost content provides the potential of access to the influencer’s audience, but there remains the risk that social media influencers will refuse or expose them.

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Facebook investigators say some influencers did post the material, but later deleted it when stories about Fazze’s work began to emerge.

French YouTuber Leo Grasset told the Associated Press in May that he was asked by Fazze to post a 45 to 60-second video on Instagram, TikTok or YouTube criticising the mortality rate of the Pfizer vaccine.

When he asked Fazze to identify their client, the firm declined. He refused the offer and went public with his concerns.

The offer from Fazze urged influencers not to mention they were being paid, and also suggested they criticise the media’s reporting on vaccines.

“Too many red flags,” Grasset told AP. “I decided not to do it.”

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