Nearly 1,000 Facebook, Instagram accounts deactivated over COVID-19 misinformation

Meta deleted nearly 1,000 Instagram and Facebook accounts, groups in several countries last month, most of which were found to belong to a sprawling network from China trying to spread COVID-19 misinformation.

The deactivated accounts, originating in Palestine, Poland, Belarus and China, violated Meta’s Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior (CIB) policy, which is when users manipulate public debate for a strategic goal where fake accounts are central to the operation.

"When we find campaigns that include groups of accounts and Pages seeking to mislead people about who they are and what they are doing while relying on fake accounts, we remove both inauthentic and authentic accounts, Pages and Groups directly involved in this activity," Meta said.

In total, Meta deleted 979 accounts, groups and pages across its platforms, including accounts in:

  • China: 524 Facebook accounts, 20 Pages, four groups and 86 Instagram accounts.
  • Palestine: 141 Facebook accounts, 79 Pages, 13 groups and 21 Instagram accounts.
  • Poland: 31 Facebook accounts, four groups, two Facebook events and four Instagram accounts.
  • Belarus: 41 Facebook accounts, five groups, and four Instagram accounts.
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A man looks at a computer screen with a Facebook logo in Warsaw, Poland on Feb. 21, 2021. (Photo illustration by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Meta said the Chinese network’s activity specifically targeted Anglophone audiences in the United States and United Kingdom with COVID-19 misinformation. Their operation also went after Chinese-speaking audiences in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet.

It dates back to July when someone posing as a Swiss biologist named Wilson Edwards claimed the U.S. was putting pressure on scientists from the World Health Organization to blame China for the novel coronavirus. Multiple Chinese-run outlets ran stories about the claims.

In August, the Swiss Embassy denied having any citizen by that name. Meta removed the Facebook account the same day.

"In essence, this campaign was a hall of mirrors, endlessly reflecting a single fake persona," Meta said. "Our investigation uncovered that almost the entire initial spread of the "Wilson Edwards" story on our platform was inauthentic — the work of a multi-pronged, largely unsuccessful influence operation that originated in China."

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The Palestinian network originated in the Gaza Strip and focused on domestic targets as well as people in Egypt and Israel. Meta said its investigation linked the activity to Hamas.

"The individuals behind this activity posted news stories, cartoons and memes primarily in Arabic about current events in the region, including the postponed Palestinian election, criticism of Israeli defense policy, Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas, and supportive commentary about Hamas," Meta explained.

Meta said the Polish network targeted Belarus and Iraq. And the Belarusian network sought audiences in the Middle East and Europe.

"We monitor for efforts to re-establish a presence on Facebook by networks we previously removed," Meta said. "Using both automated and manual detection, we continuously remove accounts and Pages connected to networks we took down in the past."

This story was reported from Atlanta.