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Facebook Removes 500 Accounts Used by China to Spread False ‘Swiss Biologist’ Covid Claims

Facebook has removed 500 accounts used by China to spread false ‘Swiss biologists’ Covid-19 claims and anti-US propaganda.

Parent company Meta also deleted several Instagram accounts, albeit around 100, that were linked to the propaganda network.

The company, based in Menlo Park, California, did not directly attribute the network to the Chinese government. But it noted that employees of Chinese state-owned companies and the country’s state media worked to bolster the misleading claims, which quickly became the subject of news headlines in China.

The operation began in July, when a Facebook account was created in the name of Wilson Edwards, a self-proclaimed Swiss biologist.

That same day, the account user claimed, without proof, that US officials used “enormous pressure and even intimidation” to get scientists to support calls for renewed research into the origin of the virus.

Within hours, hundreds of other accounts — some of which were only created that day — started liking, posting, or linking to the post. Many of the accounts were later found to be fake, with some users posing as Westerners and others likely using fabricated profile pictures.

Facebook has removed 500 accounts used by China to spread fake 'Swiss biologist' Wilson Edwards Covid-19 claims and anti-US propaganda

Facebook has removed 500 accounts used by China to spread fake ‘Swiss biologist’ Wilson Edwards Covid-19 claims and anti-US propaganda

Facebook said employees of Chinese state-owned enterprises and the country's state media were working to bolster the misleading claims, which quickly became the subject of news headlines in China (photo, headlines in The People's Daily, China Daily and CGTN television channel)

Facebook said employees of Chinese state-owned enterprises and the country's state media were working to bolster the misleading claims, which quickly became the subject of news headlines in China (photo, headlines in The People's Daily, China Daily and CGTN television channel)

Facebook said employees of Chinese state-owned enterprises and the country’s state media were working to bolster the misleading claims, which quickly became the subject of news headlines in China (photo, headlines in The People’s Daily, China Daily and CGTN television channel)

“In effect, it functioned as an online room of mirrors, endlessly reflecting the original fake persona and anti-American disinformation,” said Ben Nimmo, who leads disinformation research at Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram.

Facebook said it has found links between the accounts and a technology company based in Chengdu, China, as well as with foreign employees of Chinese infrastructure companies.

Within a week of the first post, major media outlets in China covered the allegations of US harassment as if they were made by a real scientist.

The operation came to light when Swiss authorities announced in August that they did not have a biologist named Edwards. “If you exist, we’d love to meet you!” tweeted the Swiss embassy in Beijing.

1638434314 597 Facebook Removes 500 Accounts Used by China to Spread False

1638434314 597 Facebook Removes 500 Accounts Used by China to Spread False

The Swiss biologist claimed, without evidence, that US officials used “enormous pressure and even intimidation” to get scientists to support calls for renewed research into the origin of the virus (photo, Wuhan Institute of Virology)

1638434314 417 Facebook Removes 500 Accounts Used by China to Spread False

1638434314 417 Facebook Removes 500 Accounts Used by China to Spread False

China’s foreign ministry has said in the past that the country’s government does not engage in social media deception.

Attempts to contact the companies named in the report were not immediately successful on Wednesday.

Facebook discovered fake accounts affiliated with the network that had also invaded US politics last year, with some memes both attacking and supporting ex-President Donald Trump.

An Instagram post called him “the worst president ever!” The group behind the effort also made accounts on Twitter, which has since suspended the account supposedly created by Edwards.

Nimmo said the network was easy to spot for its clumsy tactics. Several of the fake accounts sent identical messages at the same times – a clear indication of coordination.

Another person who apparently worked for the network posted instructions for reposting the claim in what Facebook said was likely a sloppy mistake.

Facebook discovered fake accounts affiliated with the network that had also invaded US politics last year, with some memes both attacking and supporting ex-President Donald Trump

Facebook discovered fake accounts affiliated with the network that also entered US politics last year, with some memes both attacking and supporting ex-President Donald Trump

Facebook discovered fake accounts affiliated with the network that had also invaded US politics last year, with some memes both attacking and supporting ex-President Donald Trump

China’s disinformation networks have been consistently haphazard, said Bret Schafer, head of the information manipulation team at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, an impartial think tank in Washington.

The network excavated by Facebook shows that the Chinese are still working on their influence campaigning strategy, unlike Russia, which has spent decades building disinformation campaigns targeting unwitting Americans online and going undetected for years.

“It didn’t take long for this to unravel,” Schafer said. “The Chinese are even more careless with what they do. I can’t imagine the Russians doing something like that, creating a persona out of nothing.’

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