Facebook Parent Meta Removes China-Linked Influence Network Pushing COVID-19 Disinformation

By Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen
Reporter
Isabel van Brugen is an award-winning journalist and currently a news reporter at The Epoch Times. She holds a master's in newspaper journalism from City, University of London.
December 1, 2021 Updated: December 1, 2021

An influence operation with ties to China used over 600 Facebook and Instagram accounts to spread disinformation on COVID-19, according to an adversarial threat report released by Meta on Wednesday.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, said it had in November removed hundreds of accounts on the social media platforms which worked to push false claims, including that the United States pressured scientists to blame China for the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus.

According to the threat report, the influence operation began in July, when an individual posing as a Swiss biologist named Wilson Edwards claimed on Facebook and Twitter that the United States was pressuring World Health Organization (WHO) scientists studying the origins of COVID-19, in an attempt to blame the virus on China.

This individual reportedly did so by targeting audiences who were already focused on the WHO, by posting replies to the WHO’s official social media posts, including by the WHO’s Western Pacific Office, the WHO’s main account, the WHO director general, and others.

This claim was then quickly echoed and amplified via China’s state-run media reports, including the Global Times and People’s Daily, which ran pieces alleging U.S. “intimidation,” Meta said.

A month later, the Swiss Embassy in Beijing had verified that this individual didn’t exist, and the account was removed from Facebook as a fake.

“If you exist, we would like to meet you!” the Swiss embassy in Beijing wrote on Twitter at the time.

“In effect it worked like an online hall of mirrors, endlessly reflecting the original fake persona and its anti-U.S. disinformation,” said Ben Nimmo, who leads investigations into disinformation at Meta, which is based in Menlo Park, California, the Associated Press reported.

Meta said its operation brought together several hundred additional inauthentic accounts, and some authentic accounts, including some that belonged to employees of Chinese state infrastructure companies and a tech firm based in Chengdu, China.

The operation also found that several Chinese regime officials began interacting with its content less than an hour after it was initially posted, and hours later, the “amplification clusters began liking and sharing it.”

“This is the first time we have observed an operation that included a coordinated cluster of state employees to amplify itself in this way,” the report states.

In total, Meta removed about 600 accounts on Facebook and Instagram that were linked to the network, Nimmo told reporters on a call Wednesday that touched on the company’s response to several disinformation networks around the world.

Meta said it separately took down a network linked to an “anti-vaccination movement” called V_V, which targeted and harassed medical professionals, journalists, and elected officials in Italy and France.

Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen is an award-winning journalist and currently a news reporter at The Epoch Times. She holds a master's in newspaper journalism from City, University of London.