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Russian ad network linked to a failed Facebook anti-vaccine push

Influencers blew the whistle after being offered payments to post misleading vaccine claims

Facebook has acted decisively to dismantle a Russian-backed anti-vaccine campaign that sought to recruit social media influencers to discredit Covid-19 vaccines produced by Pfizer and AstraZeneca.

A network of 65 Facebook and 243 Instagram accounts linked to Fazze, an ad firm of unknown ownership, was found to be behind an orchestrated campaign of misinformation spreading smears as to vaccine efficiency.

Outlandish posts targeting audiences across India and the Americas spread fanciful fears – including one claim that an AstraZeneca shot could transform the recipient into a chimpanzee – which contravened a ban on anti-vaxxer ads.

Attempts to ensnare social media influencers in France and Germany brought the network to wider attention after several high-profile posters who were contacted with the offer of payments to repost misleading content chose to raise the alarm instead.

Facebook responded by removing the network’s accounts and banning Fazze from its platforms, although it is unclear just how successful the mischief-making actually proved to be – with some posts failing to elicit a single response.

French YouTuber Leo Grasset was among those solicited to take part in the scheme, with a request to post a short video on Instagram, TikTok or YouTube calling into question mortality rates linked to the Pfizer vaccine without acknowledging any payments. Wary of the request, Grasset asked for more information on the client behind it, which was stonewalled, prompting him to alert the public.

Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy, remarked: “Although it was sloppy and didn’t have very good reach, it was an elaborate set-up.”

Influencers have become an increasingly important tool in the armory of advertisers wishing to connect with audiences, delivering mutual benefits but also greater risks of fraud and lack of transparency.

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