Facebook bans ad agency behind outlandish campaign deriding Pfizer, AstraZeneca vaccines

Pfizer and AstraZeneca notched a vaccine disinformation win against a “crude and spammy” social media smear campaign originating from Russia this week.

Facebook removed hundreds of accounts and banned a “disinformation laundromat”—its words for a U.K. marketing agency linked to bizarre claims on Facebook and Instagram. The two-pronged smear campaign, outlined in a detailed Facebook report, first waged war on AstraZeneca’s vaccine in late 2020 then launched a second attack on Pfizer’s vaccine in May.

Although the campaign didn’t amass many followers and failed to recruit influencers to its cause, the agency’s ban comes amid a torrent of vaccine disinformation on Facebook. President Joe Biden has lambasted Facebook for refusing to take a more aggressive stand against the disinformation circulating on its platform.

In AstraZeneca’s case, dozens of outlandish memes suggested, or even made outright claims, that the vaccine would turn people into chimpanzees. Many used scenes from the 1970s movie “Planet of the Apes.”

The “Pfizer phase” centered on a 12-page document the campaign claimed was "hacked and leaked" from AstraZeneca. It included a phony chart showing higher casualty rates from the Pfizer vaccine. The Pfizer disinformation drop began on May 14 with three articles posted on Medium, Reddit and ethicalhacker.com within 90 minutes of one another.

RELATED: Russia's Sputnik V nabs first Twitter-verified vaccine handle, but is it PR or propaganda?

The now-banned marketing company, named Fazze, is registered in the U.K. but conducted operations mainly from Russia, Facebook said. Most of its activity targeted audiences in India and Latin America but it also operated to a lesser extent in the U.S.

Both phases of the campaign attempted to engage influencers on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok to post content with specific hashtags. Almost none of the influencers took the bait, though, and several even ended up exposing the company and its dubious claims by outing the anti-Pfizer efforts in the media.

One French and one German influencer refused Fazze’s reported offer of €2,000 and instead publicized the campaign, leading to inquiries and investigations. The fake articles and posts subsequently disappeared.

Facebook’s report praised the influencers for coming forward and credited the ensuing media investigations from CNN, The Daily Beast and Graphika for helping the social media giant uncover the network’s operations.

RELATED: Pfizer plans DTC effort to pitch COVID-19 shot safety, joining a fall flurry of vaccine messaging

All told, Facebook found 65 different Facebook accounts and 243 Instagram accounts making up the deception network.

While neither campaign built any significant audience across the dozens of platforms and forums it tried to gain traction on, it still broke Facebook’s rules against “coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign entity.” The Instagram accounts had racked up 24,000 followers total.