Hundreds of accounts were removed from Instagram to curtail a COVID-19 misinformation campaign on the platform connected to a Russian advertising agency, the Associated Press reported. Fazze, the agency, reportedly contracted social media influences to spread misinformation through the app about the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines.
Facebook, which is the owner of Instagram, announced Tuesday that 65 Instagram accounts were removed and that 243 Instagram profiles were deleted that were connected to the smear campaign. Fazze was hired by someone or something to harm the reputations of AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines.
According to the Associated Press, this misinformation campaign used fake accounts that questioned safety of the vaccines. One false account claimed that AstraZeneca’s vaccine would make those who had it into chimpanzees. While the campaign was primarily targeted at audiences in India and Latin America, there was also some infiltration to a “much lesser extent” in the U.S., Facebook said
Russia has been aggressively marketing its COVID-19 vaccine Sputnik V abroad, in what analysts believe is an attempt to score geopolitical points. However, representatives from Facebook did not speculate as to the motivation for the smear campaign.
Fazze also reached out to social media influencers from several countries, offering them money for the repost of misleading content. This tactic backfired when influential people in France and Germany exposed the offer.
Facebook banned Fazze as well as the accounts of the network. Facebook did not respond to messages seeking comment on Tuesday.
Fazze’s efforts did not gain much online traction, with some posts not even receiving one response. However, the campaign was notable because it attempted to recruit social media influencers. Nathaniel Gleicher is Facebook’s head for security policy.
Gleicher stated, “It was sloppy and didn’t have very good reach but it was an elaborate set-up,” during a conference call to announce Tuesday’s actions.
Social media platforms have become more adept at identifying and removing fake accounts. Disinformation campaigns have also had to adapt. Although the possibility of getting exposure to their audience by paying social media influencers for reposting their content is great, there’s always the chance that they will decline or, as was the case here, call them out.
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Facebook investigators claim that some influencers posted the material, but they deleted it after stories about Fazze began to surface.
Fazze reached out to Leo Grasset, a French YouTuber. In May, he told the Associated Press that he was asked to upload a 45 to 60 second video on Instagram, TikTok, or YouTube critiquing the Pfizer vaccine’s mortality rate.
Grasset requested Fazze to identify their client. Fazze declined. Grasset declined the offer and made it public to voice his concerns.
Fazze offered to pay influencers to not mention they were being paid and suggested that they criticize media reporting on vaccines.