Facebook takes down Chinese network behind fake Swiss biologist Covid claims

Facebook’s owner has taken down a Chinese misinformation network that attempted to spread claims about coronavirus using a fake Swiss biologist.

Meta, the parent organisation of Facebook and Instagram, said it had taken down more than 600 accounts linked to the network, which it said included a “coordinated cluster” of Chinese state employees.

Meta said the network focused on a fake Swiss biologist named Wilson Edwards who first emerged on 24 July 2021, claiming in Facebook and Twitter posts that the United States was pressuring the World Health Organization to blame the virus on China. Within a week, Chinese state media outlets, including the Global Times and People’s Daily, ran headlines linked to Edwards’ posts about US “intimidation”.

The details were included in Meta’s “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” [CIB] report, which also revealed it had taken down networks in Palestine, Belarus and Poland. Meta describes CIB as “coordinated efforts to manipulate public debate for a strategic goal where fake accounts are central to the operation”.

Meta said the “sprawling and unsuccessful” Chinese misinformation network targeted audiences in the US, the UK, and Chinese-speaking audiences in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet. It removed 524 Facebook accounts, 20 pages, four groups, and 86 accounts on Instagram related to the network, which Meta said was linked to individuals at Chinese state infrastructure companies around the world – including civil engineering, power generation, telecoms and transport businesses – and employees of a mainland information security firm called Sichuan Silence Information Technology, which works with state bodies including the Ministry of Public Security.

Meta said Wilson Edwards’ Facebook post was a lengthy text which claimed that “WHO sources and a number of fellow researchers” had complained of “enormous pressure and even intimidation” from the US over the WHO’s plan for a renewed Covid origins investigation. It was then amplified in a coordinated manner by the network using a mix of fake and authentic accounts. Meta said the campaign appeared not to have worked because “these efforts failed to attract any noticeable authentic engagement”.

On 10 August the Swiss embassy in Beijing said it had no record of a citizen called Wilson Edwards and Facebook removed the account. Meta said the account had been created on 24 July, 12 hours before the fake biologist started posting on the social network. The company added that some of the 200 fake accounts that boosted the Wilson Edwards content within hours of it being posted had profile pictures created by an artificial intelligence programme.

“In essence, this campaign was a hall of mirrors, endlessly reflecting a single fake persona,” said the report. “Our investigation uncovered that almost the entire initial spread of the ‘Wilson Edwards’ story on our platform was inauthentic – the work of a multi-pronged, largely unsuccessful influence operation that originated in China.”

Meta said it identified Chinese state involvement in the proliferation of the Edwards content. It said the operation involved the original fake account, several hundred other fake accounts and a “cluster” of authentic accounts, including ones that belonged to employees of state infrastructure companies around the world. There were also links to an information security company called Sichuan Silence Information Technology.

“This is the first time we have observed an operation that included a coordinated cluster of state employees to amplify itself in this way,” said the report. The investigation also found that Chinese government officials interacted with the content less than an hour after it was first posted.

Elsewhere in the report, Meta said it took down 141 Facebook accounts and 21 Instagram accounts from the Gaza Strip in Palestine that “primarily targeted people in Palestine” and were linked to Hamas, with many of the personas being young women in the West Bank or Sinai in Egypt.

Meta said: “The individuals behind this activity posted news stories, cartoons and memes primarily in Arabic about current events in the region, including the postponed Palestinian election, criticism of Israeli defence policy, Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas, and supportive commentary about Hamas.”

In Poland the company took down 31 Facebook accounts and four Instagram accounts that targeted Belarus and Iraq. Meta said it found the network “as we monitored the unfolding crisis at the border between Belarus and the EU”. The network appeared to be trying to dissuade people from trying to enter the EU.

“These fake personas claimed to be sharing their own negative experiences of trying to get from Belarus to Poland and posted about migrants’ difficult lives in Europe. They also posted about Poland’s strict anti-migrant policies and anti-migrant neo-Nazi activity in Poland,” said Meta.

In Belarus, the border crisis was the main factor too, as Meta removed 41 Facebook accounts and four Instagram accounts targeting the Middle East and Europe. Meta linked the network, which used fake accounts of people posing as EU journalists and activists, to the Belarusian KGB.

Meta said: “These fictitious personas posted criticism of Poland in English, Polish, and Kurdish, including pictures and videos about Polish border guards allegedly violating migrants’ rights, and compared Poland’s treatment of migrants against other countries.”

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