Russian trolls spread wild lie that COVID Vax turns people into chimps

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Russian trolls use Planet of the Apes memes in a failed attempt to convince vaccine skeptics that the AstraZeneca vaccine will turn them into chimpanzees.

That’s the conclusion of a new report from Facebook, which found that an affiliate of a Russian marketing agency, Fazze, was exploiting dozens of fake Facebook and Instagram accounts as part of a disinformation campaign targeting vaccines manufactured in the West. The report builds on previous reports on the same network by The Daily Beast.

Facebook officials said they found 65 Facebook accounts and 243 Instagram accounts linked to the effort, which targeted users in India, Latin America and the United States.

Fazze timed his disinformation campaigns to coincide with times when regulatory authorities in various countries were considering fast-track approval of Western vaccines, according to Facebook.

The first wave of the company’s disinformation campaign began in late 2020 and targeted the AstraZeneca vaccine and its use in India. Fazze troll accounts collected from account farms in Bangladesh and Pakistan took advantage of the fact that the AstraZeneca vaccine uses a harmless virus found in chimpanzees to claim that the jab would turn recipients into chimpanzees themselves. Trolls took screenshots of the 1960s sci-fi classic Planet of the Apes showing monkey guards manhandling Charlton Heston, captioned “AstraZeneca’s vaccine is safe!” Yesterday we took the vaccine ourselves.

As part of their campaign, trolls connected to Change.org petitions that attempted to anchor wild claims about chimpanzee transformation to out-of-context quotes from AstraZeneca officials reported in legitimate news outlets.

The disinformation campaign “fell flat and hardly gained popularity on the Internet,” Ben Nimmo, head of threat intelligence for Facebook’s global information operations, told reporters. heckled sock puppets with epithets like “google expert”.

The campaign was also “spam and sloppy,” according to Nimmo, detonating hundreds of automated messages and causing operators to mix up Portuguese hashtags intended for Brazilian audiences in addition to Hindi memes intended for India.

Fazze’s anti-vaccine campaign was first revealed once its second wave hit. In May, European YouTube influencers denounced the company’s offers to pay them for hype based on a leaked AstraZeneca document and falsely claiming the company’s COVID-19 vaccine was dangerous.

Subsequent reporting from The Daily Beast revealed a US-focused component of Fazze’s disinformation campaign to discredit Pfizer’s vaccine in the American public.

For this effort, Fazze used his network of South Asian sock puppet accounts to spam links to articles bearing the leaked graphic on US-focused Facebook pages. Targets found by The Daily Beast included a news page for the retirement community of The Villages in Florida, a COVID-19 news center in Mississippi, and other health and COVID-19 news pages.

The trolls imitated the tactics of Russian intelligence disinformation campaigns in an attempt to trick readers and journalists into believing that the leaked AstraZeenca graphic was obtained through a Russian government hack and leak operation. Articles carrying the leaked snippet used crude headlines such as “Hacker is Like Friendly Neighbor, Spiderman on the World Wide Web” and claimed it was “data disclosed by hackers”.

AstraZeneca did not respond to questions from the Daily Beast and it is not known how Fazze obtained the internal report. But although it is not intended for distribution to the public, AstraZeneca barely kept it a secret – the company shared the document with regulators in the European Union and Russia, according to Russian media who received a complete copy of the report.


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