Facebook derails anti-Covid-19 vaccine campaign that harassed medical workers

Facebook took down accounts linked to a conspiracy movement that inundated pro-vaccine posts with comments. PHOTO: REUTERS

SAN FRANCISCO (AFP) - Facebook-parent Meta on Wednesday (Dec 1) said it derailed an anti-Covid vaccine campaign that harassed medical workers, journalists and elected officials, in a signal of the ongoing pressure from pandemic-tied misinformation.

The social media giant took down accounts in France and Italy that were linked to a conspiracy movement called "V-V", which inundated pro-vaccine posts with potentially tens of thousands of comments.

"V-V" supporters also "mass-harassed" people on YouTube, Twitter, VKontakte and other online platforms, using swastikas or other images as well as calling doctors and media workers Nazi supporters for backing vaccines, Meta said.

The company's update regarding efforts to counter misinformation and harassment on its platform comes as the tech giant battles accusations that it puts profit over user safety.

The firm changed its parent company name to Meta in October as it tries to move past being a scandal-plagued social network to its virtual reality vision for the future.

A report by social network analysis firm Graphika offered additional information on "V-V", which says it is engaged in guerrilla "psychological warfare" that targets vaccine supporters.

Graphika estimates that "V-V" has about 20,000 followers and said the group has been linked to vandalism of hospitals and efforts to disrupt vaccination programmes by repeatedly booking and cancelling medical appointments.

The group's campaign used messaging service Telegram to train recruits and spread word of who to target, according to Meta head of emerging harms investigations Mike Dvilyanski.

"While we aren't banning all V-V content, we're continuing to monitor the situation and will take action if we find additional violations," Meta said.

The tech giant also reported taking down a "sprawling and unsuccessful" network out of China that used fake accounts to promote a bogus claim that a Swiss biologist contended the US was putting pressure on World Health Organisation scientists to blame China for the pandemic.

Investigators on the Meta security team equated the campaign to a "hall of mirrors, endlessly reflecting a single fake persona" with even Chinese state media citing the fabricated claim.

"Clusters of fake accounts attempted post-amplification, which only took root when media picked up the stories," Meta head of security policy Nathaniel Gleicher said in the briefing.

"But, that was quickly debunked and fizzled out quickly," he added.

The tactic reflected a trend of trying to get legitimate news outlets to spread misinformation promoted by networks of fake accounts, Gleicher noted.

"Operations like these will also target media, marketers and influencers, who need defences against these kinds of campaigns," he said.

Meta found links to employees of people associated with Chinese state infrastructure companies based 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 said.

"Our investigation also found that a number of Chinese government officials began interacting with the operation's content less than an hour after it first posted."

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