Facebook, Instagram remove accounts linked to Chinese COVID-19 disinformation efforts

Meta on Wednesday announced that it had removed hundreds of accounts, pages and groups linked to a Chinese effort to spread disinformation around the United States pressuring the World Health Organization (WHO) to blame the COVID-19 pandemic on China.

According to Meta’s Adversarial Threat Report, which detailed takedowns of networks in multiple countries linked to inauthentic coordinated behavior on Facebook and other social media platforms, the effort began in July with a single Facebook account purporting to be a Swiss biologist named Wilson Edwards.

The fake account linked to Edwards, who Swiss authorities later confirmed to Meta does not exist, claimed that U.S. authorities were pressuring WHO scientists to pin the blame for the COVID-19 pandemic on China. Within two days, the post had been reported on by Chinese state media and spread by hundreds of social media accounts. 

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Ben Nimmo, the Global IO Threat Intelligence Lead and the IO Threat at Meta, wrote in the report that researchers had found evidence that Chinese government officials had interacted with the post within an hour of it going online, and that Chinese government employees had helped amplify the post. 

“In effect, it worked like an online Hall of Mirrors, endlessly reflecting the original fake persona and its anti-U.S. information,” Nimmo told reporters on a call Wednesday. 

The original fake account was removed by Facebook in August, with 524 other Facebook accounts later taken down, along with 20 Facebook pages, four groups, and 86 Instagram accounts. Over 70,000 Facebook accounts followed one of the pages prior to its takedown.

The Adversarial Threat Report released by Meta also chronicled several other malicious efforts that Meta has caught over the past year.

These included removing hundreds of Facebook and Instagram accounts linked to Hamas and the Gaza Strip that targeted individuals in Palestine, Egypt and Israel that pretended to be news outlets. 

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Meta also removed almost three dozen Facebook accounts, four Facebook groups, two Facebook events and four Instagram accounts linked to Poland that were targeting individuals in Belarus and Iraq in regards to the immigration concerns between Belarus and the European Union. The accounts worked to amplify the message that life in the EU was difficult, as was the crossing from Belarus into Poland. 

Meta also removed a network of dozens of Facebook and Instagram accounts linked to the Belarusian KGB that posed as journalists and activists to target individuals in the Middle East and Europe with claims that Poland treated migrants roughly.

“In a sense, these two operations were using similar tactics to operate the same situation, but were pulling in opposite directions,” Nimmo told reporters. 

Meta also took down an inauthentic coordinated activity network tied to Vietnam that employed mass reporting of false claims around concerns on posts by activists critical of the Vietnamese government to pressure Facebook to take down the activists’ posts. A network of anti-COVID-19 vaccination accounts originating in France and Italy that targeted medical professionals, journalists and officials with harassment were also removed. 

Graphika released a separate report Wednesday on the accounts linked to France and Italy, describing it as a “psychological warfare campaign” to harass these individuals for advocating COVID-19 public health efforts, with the campaign based on health misinformation. 

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, will continue to share reports on future inauthentic behavior clusters removed from its sites. 

“As we continue building our understanding of these emerging threats, we will keep sharing our findings with industry peers, independent researchers, law enforcement and policymakers–including on these new disruptions–so we can collectively improve our defenses,” Meta officials wrote in the report.