Russians tried—and failed—to smear vaccines with weak Planet of the Apes memes

Screenshot from science fiction film.
Enlarge / American actor Charlton Heston as stranded astronaut George Taylor in the 1968 film Planet of the Apes.

Facebook has removed a network of over 308 Russian accounts on Facebook and Instagram after the group ran an unsuccessful campaign described as a “disinformation laundromat” to smear COVID-19 vaccines in India, Latin America, and, to a lesser extent, the United States.

Facebook described the campaign’s methods as “sloppy” and “crude and spammy” in a report published Tuesday. The social media giant noted that “the vast majority of this campaign fell flat,” with most of the networks’ posts receiving little to no attention.

The campaign had two distinct waves, which were linked to regulatory evaluations of vaccines in the targeted areas. The first wave in November and December of 2020 aimed to spread lies about AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine. The thrust of the campaign was to scare people into thinking that the vaccine could turn people into chimpanzees. Spoiler: it does not.

The root of this lie is the fact that the vaccine uses a harmless, nonreplicating adenovirus isolated from chimpanzees as a vector for vaccine delivery. The virus, obviously, cannot turn anyone into a chimpanzee.

Still, to spread this falsehood, the Russians created and spammed out anti-vaccine memes using scenes from the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes. Many of the memes were variations of scenes in which advanced ape characters recommend COVID-19 vaccines to a human astronaut who was in hibernation while humanity destroyed itself. (It’s unclear if the Russians have ever seen this film.) The campaign’s thousands of posts in this wave got few if any likes, and some authentic users mocked the ape memes.

Hacked and leaked

Facebook noted that some of the fake Russian accounts posted anti-vaccine hashtags and other content dozens or hundreds of time in short intervals, triggering the platform’s automated systems to detect and disable some of the accounts. Why the rest of the network wasn’t identified and shut down at that point is unclear. However, the accounts appeared to go dormant in January 2020 after several governments authorized AstraZeneca’s vaccine.

The network came alive again in May 2021. This time, it wanted to convince people that Pfizer/BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine was killing people. Spoiler: it is not. The Russian accounts claimed to have a “hacked and leaked” document that proved the vaccine had a higher “casualty rate” than other vaccines.

While the vaccine disinformation was once again largely ignored on Facebook and Instagram, the Russian network also tried to recruit influencers to spread the disinformation to their established audiences. At this point, influencers in France and Germany went public with the dodgy offers, as Ars reported at the time.

The influencers warned their followers to be wary of any similar content and effectively outed the Russian network. Media investigations into the offers quickly established that the Russian campaign was being fronted by a UK-registered marketing firm called Fazze, which primarily operates out of Russia.

Facebook said it was this public reporting that clued the company into the disinformation on its own platforms. In all, Facebook said it removed 65 Facebook accounts and 243 Instagram accounts linked to Fazze, including the authentic accounts of people working at Fazze, and also blocked domains associated with their activity.

Listing image by Getty | Silver Screen Collection

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