Russian trolls have been using Planet of the Apes memes in a vain attempt to convince vaccine skeptics that the AstraZeneca vaccine will turn them into chimpanzees.
That’s the conclusion of a new report from Facebook, which found that a Russian marketing agency subsidiary, Fazze, operated dozens of fake Facebook and Instagram accounts as part of a disinformation campaign targeting Western-made vaccines. The report builds off previous reporting on the same network by The Daily Beast.
Facebook officials said they found 65 Facebook accounts and 243 Instagram accounts linked to the effort, which targeted users in India, Latin America, and the United States.
Fazze timed its disinformation campaigns to coincide with periods when regulatory authorities in various countries were considering expedited approval for Western vaccines, according to Facebook.
The first wave of the company’s disinformation campaign began in late 2020 and targeted the AstraZeneca vaccine and its use in India. Fazze troll accounts harvested from account farms in Bangladesh and Pakistan pivoted off the fact that the AstraZeneca vaccine uses a harmless virus found in chimpanzees to claim that the jab would turn recipients into chimps themselves. The trolls took screenshots from the 1960s sci-fi classic Planet of the Apes showing ape guards manhandling Charlton Heston, captioned with “AstraZeneca's vaccine is safe! Yesterday we took the vaccine ourselves.”
As part of their campaign, trolls linked out to Change.org petitions which tried to anchor the wild claims about chimpanzee transformation to out-of-context quotes from AstraZeneca company officials reported in legitimate news outlets.
The disinformation campaign “fell flat and it gained almost no traction across the internet," Ben Nimmo, Facebook’s global information operations threat intelligence chief, told reporters. The top performing post by Fazze’s network garnered only five likes and attracted ridicule from fellow Facebook users who heckled sock puppets with epithets like “google expert.”
The campaign was also “spammy and sloppy,” according to Nimmo, blasting hundreds of automated posts out and leading operators to mix Portuguese-language hashtags intended for Brazilian audiences on top of Hindi-language memes aimed at India.
Fazze’s anti-vaccine campaign first came to light once its second wave hit. In May, European YouTube influencers blew the whistle on the company’s offers to pay them to hype a chart taken from a leaked AstraZeneca document and falsely claim that the company’s COVID-19 vaccine was dangerous.
Subsequent reporting by The Daily Beast uncovered a U.S.-focused component of Fazze’s disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting Pfizer’s vaccine to American audiences.
For that effort, Fazze used its South Asian sock puppet account network to spam links to articles bearing the leaked chart to U.S.-focused Facebook pages. The targets found by The Daily Beast included a news page for The Villages retirement community in Florida, a Mississippi COVID-19 news hub, and other health and COVID-19 news pages.
The trolls mimicked the tactics of Russian intelligence disinformation campaigns in an attempt to fool readers and reporters into believing that the leaked AstraZeneca chart had been obtained via a Russian government hack-and-leak operation. Articles bearing the leaked snippet used crude headlines like “Hacker is just like a friendly neighbor, a Spiderman in the world wide web” and claimed it was “data leaked by the hackers.”
AstraZeneca did not respond to questions from The Daily Beast, and it’s unclear how Fazze obtained the internal report. But while not intended for public distribution, AstraZeneca hardly kept it secret—the company shared the document with regulators in the European Union and Russia, according to Russian news outlets who received a full copy of the report.