Facebook cracks down on ‘Swiss biologist’ Covid conspiracy theory that originated in China

·3 min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Facebook has cracked down on a Chinese influence operation that promoted fake claims made by a fictitious “Swiss biologist” that the US was interfering in the search for Covid-19 origins, parent company Meta said on Thursday.

The company said it has removed a network of 524 Facebook accounts, 20 pages, four groups and 86 accounts on Instagram in China, including those belonging to employees of Chinese state infrastructure companies across four continents.

As part of the operation, a social media user posing as a Swiss biologist named Wilson Edwards claimed on Facebook and Twitter that the US was putting pressure on World Health Organisation scientists studying the origins of Covid-19 in an attempt to blame the virus on China.

This fake account posted 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 probe.

The account posted the same text three more times over the next hour, and then stopped posting.

“Within 48 hours, hundreds of social media accounts around the world had picked up on the story. Within a week, Chinese state media including the Global Times and People’s Daily were running headlines about the alleged US ‘intimidation’,” Meta’s Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour Report for November 2021 noted.

Some of these authentic profiles that shared the post had similar behaviour patterns in which they would share distinctive pairs of URLs as text strings without further comment.

Posts made from Indonesia (left) and Kenya (right) sharing the same links in the same order. Note that the text is limited to the URLs themselves, with no commentary. (Meta)
Posts made from Indonesia (left) and Kenya (right) sharing the same links in the same order. Note that the text is limited to the URLs themselves, with no commentary. (Meta)

“They did this for months. A few slipped up and posted instructions on how to share and report back,” Ben Nimmo, the Global IO Threat Intel lead at Meta, tweeted.

“Interestingly, once you strip out the operation’s amplifiers, the fake persona got nearly zero real engagement. But, it was picked up by Chinese state media in less than a week,” he added.

The network peddling this conspiracy theory originated mainly in China, targeting global English-speaking audiences in the US, UK, and also Chinese-speaking audiences in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Tibet, Meta noted in a statement.

While network analysis experts at Facebook found that there was a single fake account at the center of this operation, the Swiss Embassy in Beijing announced that there was no record of any Swiss citizen by that name.

The researchers found that the fake account was created less than 12 hours before it started posting about the coronavirus pandemic.

Further investigation revealed that the initial spread of the “Wilson Edwards” story on Facebook was the work of a “multi-pronged, largely unsuccessful influence operation that originated in China”.

“In essence, this campaign was a hall of mirrors, endlessly reflecting a single fake persona,” they wrote in the report.

Although most people behind this conspiracy-peddling network tried to conceal their identities and coordination, the researchers found links to individuals in mainland China.

They said accounts linked to employees of information security firm Sichuan Silence Information Technology Co Ltd were also involved, as well as individuals associated with Chinese state infrastructure companies located around the world.

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

In the coming months, the company said it hoped to collaborate with researchers around the world to understand and educate people on how to spot similar deceptive campaigns which show signs of coordination and inauthenticity.

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