The Case of the Pfizer Influencer Disinformation Operation
A London-based PR agency is offering French influencers cash to launder disinformation about the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines.
A London-based PR agency is offering French influencers cash to launder disinformation about the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines.1 Information laundering is when the source of information is concealed by the messenger, like when US outlets publish stories for foreign state-controlled media outlets.
The agency asks them to falsely claim the vaccinations are responsible for hundreds of deaths and to urge others to “draw their own conclusions.”
A French YouTuber, Dirty Biology, who has 1.2 million subscribers tweeted about the offer. For non-French-speaking readers, this translates to:
It's strange. I received a partnership proposal which consists in breaking down the Pfizer vaccine on video. Colossal budget, client who wants to remain incognito and you have to hide the sponsorship. Ethics / 20. If you see any videos of it you'll know it's an op, then.
Subsequent tweets state:
I know this is bread and butter for conspirators, but hey it seems important to me to show that your favorite YouTubers / Tiktokers may be the spokespersons for what appears to be a trade dispute in this specific case (I guess)
Flemme to be the guy who validates a rotten thing thanks to the legitimacy of the SCIONCE. Cool partnerships with companies that do cool stuff, it turns out, you don't have to work for shady stuff like that.
The French news site Numerama obtained a copy of the letter sent to influencers by a PR film called Fazze on behalf of an "incognito client.” The offer outlines talking points that appear crafted to scare people away from the Pfizer vaccine.
Numerama was able to obtain the partnership request email, as well as the brief offered to influencers by the agency named Fazze.
The instructions say to explain that mortality with the Pfizer vaccine would be three times higher than with the AstraZeneca vaccine. Other requests:
The agency offers an anti-Pfizer brief, which it says must be mentioned in the video. It offers several sources posted on different sites, including Reddit and Medium.
People report being contacted in multiple countries including France and Germany.
Very interesting: an agency contacts me and asks if I want to be part of an "information campaign". It's about sharing a link to allegedly leaked documents on corona vaccination deaths. Against money. Agency headquarters: London. Residence of the CEO: Moscow.
The tweet that is replying to the original one was a comment that echoed many voices in the threads where someone reported receiving an invitation to the information operation offer. It speaks to how commonplace it is for people to believe election interference is happening.
Who Is Behind the Information Operation?
Every actor that designs an information operation, does it differently. Often the design, methods, tactics, and tropes can indicate who may be behind it. Of course, it’s also possible to copycat a method, so care should be taken when authenticating and collecting evidence.
Uses the “social media” strategy currently employed by Russia in its anti-Pfizer campaign. Examples of the Russian anti-Pfizer activity in the next section.
Similar claims are not conclusive since opportunists gravitate toward whatever stories “stick,” allowing the audience to cooperate in the disinformation. The Fazze site has no past clients listed or anything in the way of information about the organization. The address listed for Fazze is shared with 177 companies, none of which are Fazze.
Linkedin offers slightly more information. The company has one employee who claims to have done internships for Russian companies. That alone is not sufficient to draw a firm conclusion, but there are relatively few actors in this space that would have the sophistication to carry out and attempt an operation of this type.
The person listed under Fazze, named Christina Khvan, turns up in other places.
Although her profiles indicate someone in marketing, the agency has no rating despite being added in 2018.3 Their website from 2018 has an address located in the Virgin Islands.4 The person in Germany that reported a similar contact said the person had a residence listed in Moscow.
Neither the country nor the Russian Sputnik V vaccine that Russia is currently hoping to release is mentioned in the campaign. The EU signed a deal to buy 1.8 billion more doses of the Pfizer vaccine and the vaccine is widely used in Europe. Undermining trust in it can drive conflict in domestic politics and potentially open the door to more sales of Sputnik V.
It is also noteworthy that people have reported pay-per-post offers in Russia on the platform TikTok. That’s not definitive, but another suggestion that fits with the historical record.
Small accounts, newly created accounts and popular bloggers slowly all started posting videos persuading people away from the protests. These videos, in Russian, warn of the dangers of protesting.
It turns out that at least some of the people posting videos were quietly getting paid. Sums ranged from 2,000 rubles, or about $25, through to 5,000 rubles, according to one TikToker who declined the offer and posted the proposal on TikTok instead.
The video poster shares the message received offering payment for posting against protests for Navalny who is wrongly imprisoned. The user writes:
Если в ТТ увидите ролики с таким ТЗ, знайте они продали свою честь. #навальный #аквадискотека #дворецпутина
If you see videos in the TT with such a TK, you know they sold their honor. #navalny #aquadiscoteca #dvoretsputina
The effort to discredit the Pfizer vaccine is not new for the Kremlin. The state-owned outlet RIA Novosti has a “Pfizer, Inc.” tag so readers can easily find negative press concerning the vaccine. It does not report on negatives about Sputnik V.
Sample Headlines from Kremlin-controlled outlets
“23 Dead in Norway” — all these headlines appeared between 14 and 19 January.
One story from January provides a case study in information laundering.
RIA Novosti publishes the claim that 23 people died related to the Pfizer vaccine on Jan 14, 2021. On Jan 15th, Zero Hedge, a hyper-partisan media outlet known for amplifying Kremlin content, tweeted a story.
US outlets that published the story:
The Epoch Times
the New York Post,
Gateway Pundit, and
Articles paint a picture of a West that disparages the Sputnik V vaccine because Russia is not part of the in-crowd or for shallow financial reasons. Outlets argue the West is against the Russian vaccine to make money or because of “Russophobia.”
No evidence supports this claim. While Russia declared Sputnik V as the first vaccine in the world, it was announced even before the start of phase 3 of the clinical trials, normally required for any new drug. Reservations about the Russian Sputnik V vaccine arose immediately. Scientists, globally, published letters of concern.
Other Examples of Disinformation Stories:
Tsargrad published eight articles on Jan 15, 2021, attacking the Pfizer vaccine: “The Ambassador of Italy praises Sputnik V on the background of the Pfizer Deaths: ‘No Side Effects Whatsoever!”
The interest in discrediting Pfizer may be twofold, with fiscal and disinformation-related aims. The US House of Representatives published evidence that Russia had been promoting divisive vaccine messages as far back as at least 2016, although content can be found much earlier—as early as 2005.
Infectious disease disinformation more generally from Russia dates back to the 1980s. The Kremlin planted stories that suggested the US had created the HIV virus at Fort Deitrick in newspapers around the world.
“We are conducting a series of [active] measures in connection with the appearance in recent years in the USA of a new and dangerous disease, “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome – AIDS”…, and its subsequent, large-scale spread to other countries, including those in Western Europe.”