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Facebook announces bust of COVID-19 disinfo campaign linked to China

 

Mikael Thalen

Tech

Published Dec 1, 2021   Updated Dec 2, 2021, 10:33 am CST

Facebook has announced the removal of hundreds of accounts linked to foreign disinformation campaigns regarding COVID-19.

In a blog post on Wednesday, the social media company revealed details on several adversarial networks stemming from China, Palestine, Poland, Belarus, Italy, France, and Vietnam.

The accounts tied to Vietnam were accused of violating Facebook’s rules on mass reporting while accounts in France and Italy reportedly engaged in brigading, a tactic where use “work together to mass comment, mass post or engage in other types of repetitive mass behaviors to harass others or silence them.”

The networks out of China, Palestine, Poland, and Belarus had reportedly violated Facebook’s policy on Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior (CIB) that seeks to manipulate public debate.

Specific attention has been given to the campaign tied to China, which saw 524 accounts, 20 pages, four groups, and 86 Instagram accounts removed by the social media platform.

“This network originated primarily in China and targeted global English-speaking audiences in the United States and United Kingdom, and also Chinese-speaking audiences in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Tibet,” the blog states. “We began looking into this activity after reviewing public reporting about the single fake account at the center of this operation.”

In July, an account claiming to belong to a Swiss biologist named Wilson Edwards drew attention for accusing the U.S. government of intimidating the World Health Organization (WHO) into investigating COVID-19’s origins in China.

Yet the Swiss Embassy in China revealed in August that it had no record of any such person existing, leading Facebook to immediately take down the account.

The fake account’s criticism of the U.S. on Facebook was quickly interacted with by “a number of Chinese government officials.” Facebook says nearly all the accounts to engage with the post shortly after were fake.

The claims made by the fake Swiss biologist were also promoted as legitimate by state-run media in China at the time.

Ben Nimmo, Facebook’s information operations threat intelligence lead, stated in a press call that the social media company was not accusing the Chinese government of being involved but merely pointing out that numerous state employees had interacted with it.

“When you strip out the fake amplification, the original fake account got almost no organic engagement. Almost all the likes and shares we looked at came from the operation. So effectively, they were working in a bubble,” Nimmo said, according to VICE. “Yet somehow less than a week after it was created, the original fake account, the fake Swiss biologist, was being quoted by the Chinese state media. And it’s only then that its story really took off, at least briefly.”

Facebook says it has shared its findings with “industry peers, independent researchers, law enforcement, and policymakers so we can collectively improve our defenses.”

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*First Published: Dec 1, 2021, 4:08 pm CST