Meta deletes Chinese “state employees” and “Swiss biologist” over Covid-19

By Elles Houweling

Meta Platforms, Facebook’s parent company, says it has removed accounts used by a Chinese influencer operation seeking to suggest that the US was interfering in the search for the origins of Covid-19.

A probably fictional Swiss biologist named Wilson Edwards posted on Facebook that the US was attempting to blame the Covid-19 pandemic on China. In July, his comments were widely quoted by Chinese state media and netizens.

However, a month later, the Swiss embassy in China said it had found no evidence of Wilson as a Swiss citizen and asked the Chinese newspapers concerned to remove comments and articles quoting him.

In a Twitter post, the embassy called out Edwards, saying, “if you exist, we would like to meet you! But it is more likely that this is fake news, and we call on the Chinese press and netizens to take down the posts.”

The embassy added there was no registry of any Swiss citizen with the name “Wilson Edwards”, that there were no academic articles in the biology field cited under his name and that the Facebook account cited had been created on July 24, 2021, and had only posted once.

“It only has 3 friends. It is likely that this Facebook account was not opened for social networking purposes,” the embassy wrote.

Facebook investigated the incident and deleted the account in August. Chinese media also removed articles quoting the fictitious scientist.

Meta said in a report on Wednesday that the social media campaign was “largely unsuccessful” and that it had targeted an English-speaking audience in the US and UK and a Chinese-speaking audience in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet.

It also said that it had since taken down 524 Facebook accounts, 20 pages, four groups and 86 Instagram accounts involved in the campaign.

“We … were able to link the activity to individuals in mainland China, including employees of a particular company in China, the Sichuan Silence Information Technology Company Limited, as well as some individuals associated with Chinese state infrastructure companies around the world,” Meta’s head of global threat disruption David Agranovich told Reuters.

Meta added that it had not found any connections between Sichuan Silence Information Technology and the Chinese government.

On its official website, Sichuan Silence Information describes itself as a network and information security company that provides network security services to the Chinese Ministry of Public Security and the Chinese CNCERT, the key coordination team for China’s cybersecurity emergency response.

Meta also said in its report that the account’s operators used virtual private networks (VPN) to cover up its origin and attempted to give Edwards a rounded personality. The misinformation campaign that ensued “was a hall of mirrors, endlessly reflecting a single fake persona” that began in China itself, the platform said.

The bogus biologist’s original post was first shared and liked by fake Facebook accounts and then passed on by genuine users, most of whom were working for Chinese state-owned infrastructure companies in more than 20 countries, Meta found.

“This is the first time that we are observing an operation that included a coordinated group of state employees to scale up in this way,” the report said. Meta also added that they found no evidence of the network gaining ground among genuine communities.

Chinese news outlets, including China Daily and English-language tv station CGTN, widely cited Edwards’ July post as evidence that the US was politicising the World Health Organisation’s research into Covid-19’s origins.

Facebook has repeatedly come under fire over its handling of misinformation, especially amid Covid-19 chaos and vaccine scepticism. According to a GlobalData report on misinformation, the pandemic has been “fertile ground for fake news and the exploitation of public fear”.

As a result, Facebook and other platforms alike have found themselves being grilled by politicians on both sides of the Atlantic about their failure to tackle the spread of misinformation.

The origin of Covid-19 has also become a source of tension between the US and China, with some people claiming that the virus originated in a lab in Wuhan, China.