China-linked operators used a fake Swiss biologist in order to discredit a World Health Organization inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, according to new research from Meta.
The operators created an account on Facebook in the name “Wilson Edwards” and had it claim that the U.S. government had engaged in "enormous pressure and even intimidation" on the World Health Organization in the course of the group’s investigation into how the coronavirus pandemic began in an operation that spanned different social media platforms.
Swiss officials confirmed that Edwards, the purported biologist, did not exist in a Twitter post noting that government databases held no entry for a citizen by that name.
Researchers at Meta (Facebook’s rebranded name) announced the suspension of the account and inauthentic accounts amplifying it as part of a sprawling takedown that included separate enforcement against inauthentic accounts and networks involved in mass harassment in Belarus, Poland, Palestine, Vietnam, Italy, and France.
The fake Swiss doctor persona was operated by individuals at Sichuan Silence Information Technology Co, a Chinese cybersecurity firm and "individuals associated with Chinese state infrastructure companies located around the world," according to Meta. Once created, a series of fake accounts and authentic ones run by employees of Chinese state infrastructure companies shared content from the Edwards account in a mostly failed attempt to spark engagement with it outside the circle of sock puppets and supporters.
On a few accounts, the network of sock puppets accidentally published apparently internal instructions detailing coordination with foreign-based fake accounts involved in the disinformation campaign. In one post addressed to “leaders and colleagues,” the account instructs readers to “Please link and forward the following content on overseas social media accounts” followed by links to a story casting doubt on the Chinese lab leak theory of the coronavirus origins.
Chinese disinformation campaigns on social media have become more common ever since researchers first noticed China-linked networks of inauthentic accounts criticizing Hong Kong protesters who demonstrated against mainland rule beginning in 2019. Since then, security teams at Twitter, Facebook, and the cybersecurity firm Mandiant have identified a number of China-linked inauthentic networks pushing conspiracy theories about the origins of COVID-19, criticism of the U.S., former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, and fugitive Chinese millionaire Guo Wengui.
Separately, Meta officials also suspended a series of accounts from members of the European anti-vaccine group V_V for violating its policy on “brigading”—a coordinated swarm of hateful and threatening messages aimed at silencing opponents through mass intimidation. Individuals involved in the network allegedly engaged in the coordinated mass harassment of doctors, elected officials, and private citizens through groups set up on Facebook, YouTube, Telegram, and the Russian social media platform VKtontakte.
Separately Meta researchers say they found a network of inauthentic accounts linked to Belarus’ intelligence service which pretended to be European journalists in an attempt to criticize Poland’s handling of its recent border crisis with Belarus. Over the past month, Belarus has lured immigrants from Iraq and the Middle East and forced them across the country’s border with Poland in an attempt to destabilize its neighbor.