Facebook removed a Russian vaccine misinformation campaign that claimed the COVID-19 shot turns people into chimpanzees

Facebook removed a Russian vaccine misinformation campaign that claimed the COVID-19 shot turns people into chimpanzees
Facebook logo is seen displayed on a phone screen in photo taken in Poland on November 29, 2020. Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images
  • Facebook banned over 300 accounts largely from Russia that acted "as a disinformation laundromat."
  • The campaign enlisted Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok influencers to spread vaccine misinformation.
  • The network was linked to Fazze, a UK-registered marketing firm now banned from the platform.

Facebook banned hundreds of social media accounts linked to a Russian vaccine misinformation network, the company said in its July Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior report (CIB) released Tuesday.

The removed Facebook and Instagram accounts largely operated out of Russia and baselessly claimed that the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine turned recipients into chimpanzees. Several memes circulated by the accounts used images from the 1968 movie "Planet of the Apes."

"AstraZeneca created a vaccine based on chimpanzee genes, when tests showed side effects, this vaccine should be banned, otherwise we will all become chimpanzees," one post by the misinformation network falsely claimed.

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Facebook's July CIB report separates the network's activities into two phases with a five-month break of inactivity in between. Russia is still the world's largest producer of online disinformation, the company reported in May.

While the first wave of posts spread misinformation about the AstraZeneca vaccine, the second operation primarily targeted US audiences, posting false claims that Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine had a much higher "casualty rate" than other vaccines.


Facebook removed a Russian vaccine misinformation campaign that claimed the COVID-19 shot turns people into chimpanzees
"Meme posted by one of the Instagram accounts on December 15, 2020. The meme was in Hindi, but the account had an English name. It was operated from Russia, and it used a Portuguese hashtag," reads Facebook's July 2021 CIB report. Facebook July 2021 Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior Report

Facebook said the campaign "functioned as a disinformation laundromat" and enlisted influencers with existing audiences on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok. It also posted articles and petitions on Medium, Reddit, and Change.org.

Fazze, a UK-registered marketing firm, sent emails to influencers in order to recruit them for the campaign, according to the report. Fazze is now banned from the platform - however, it is still unknown who hired the company.

Ben Nimmo, Facebook's Global IO Threat Intelligence Lead, wrote that the cross-platform nature of the campaign makes it "challenging for any one platform to see the full picture" and demonstrates "why a whole-of-society response to such disinformation campaigns is critical."

He highlighted that Facebook's removal of the operation was possible due to German and French influencers who reported Fazze's outreach, as well as the work of international journalists.

Renee DiResta, a research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory told Insider that Facebook took action on these accounts not because of the substance of the content, but because of "inauthentic activity."


"This did not come down solely for being anti-vaccine content. This came down because it was a manipulation campaign," she told Insider.

DiResta said that the accounts also used "astroturfing," which involves fake accounts posting comments to create an impression of a widespread opinion on a topic.

She added that the network's first disinformation campaign came at a time when state media accounts in Russia to China were promoting their country's vaccine while amplifying negative stories about other vaccines.

"In the case of the monkey vaccine narrative what they were doing was contrasting that with their own vaccines that did not use this particular development to try to present their vaccine as being safer or less gross than a vaccine derived with use of monkeys," DiResta told Insider.