Dec 1, 2021 - Health

Meta removes accounts linked to COVID disinformation effort by China

Photo of a sign showing the Facebook thumbs up emoji as a person walks by
Facebook's corporate headquarters campus in Menlo Park, California. Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

Meta announced Wednesday it has removed over 600 Facebook and Instagram accounts linked to a Chinese influence operation that claimed the U.S. was pressuring the World Health Organization (WHO) to blame COVID on China.

Why it matters: Though Meta said the network was unsuccessful, it marks yet another COVID disinformation campaign instigated by China in an effort to discredit the U.S.

Details: A fake persona claiming to be a Swiss biologist created an account in July, two days after it was reported that the Chinese government had rejected a WHO plan for the second phase of a study into COVID origins, and posted a message alleging that "WHO sources and a number of fellow researchers" had complained of "enormous pressure and even intimidation" from the U.S.

  • Within two days, the post had circulated among hundreds of accounts and some Chinese state media, according to Meta.
  • A number of these accounts had ties to individuals at the firm Sichuan Silence Information Technology and some Chinese state infrastructure companies, though Meta said it had not identified a connection between Sichuan Silence Information Technology and the Chinese government.
  • The campaign targeted English-speaking audiences in the U.S. and the U.K., as well as Chinese-speaking audiences in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet.
  • After reviewing reports about the original fake account, Meta removed 524 Facebook accounts, 20 pages, four groups and 86 accounts on Instagram.

What they're saying: "In essence, this campaign was a hall of mirrors, endlessly reflecting a single fake persona," Meta said in its Adversarial Threat Report. "This is the first time we have observed an operation that included a coordinated cluster of state employees to amplify itself in this way."

  • "As we continue building our understanding of these emerging threats, we will keep sharing our findings with industry peers, independent researchers, law enforcement and policymakers–including on these new disruptions–so we can collectively improve our defenses."

Worth noting: A nine-month investigation by AP and the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab previously found that China "took the lead in spreading foreign disinformation about COVID-19’s origins, as it came under attack for its early handling of the outbreak."

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