Discover more from Hoaxlines Lab
The Case of the Pfizer Influencer Disinformation Operation
A London-based PR agency that traces back to Moscow offered European influencers cash to attack brand-name vaccines.
A London-based PR agency is offering French influencers cash to launder disinformation about the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines . 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.
Additional 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. — @DirtyBiology
The French news site Numerama obtained a copy of the letter sent to influencers by a PR film Fazze, for an “incognito client.” The offer outlines talking points that seem designed to scare people away from the Pfizer vaccine.
Numerama was able to obtain the partnership request email and the brief offered to influencers by the agency named Fazze.
The instructions 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.
Translation: 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 replied 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.
You can tell that the elections are on the doorstep in Germany. Putin sends his regards. Let’s see who else has received such a request. I could imagine that the #World will soon publish another “investigative” article.
Who is behind the operation?
Every actor who designs an information operation does it differently. The design, methods, tactics, and tropes can often indicate who may be behind it. Of course, copying a method is possible, 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.
The Fazze Agency, which is not a registered business in the UK and represents the “incognito” client, argues many of the claims from the official Sputnik V vaccine account .
Similar claims are inconclusive 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 insufficient to draw a firm conclusion.
Still, the subject matter — the specificity of it — seems to narrow the pool of suspects. There is one state that has heavily invested in attacking Pfizer, Russia. Neither the country nor the Sputnik V vaccine Russia hopes to release is mentioned in the campaign.
The person listed under Fazze, Christina Khvan, turned up elsewhere.
Although her profiles indicate someone in marketing, the agency has no rating despite being added in 2018 . Their website from 2018 has an address in the Virgin Islands . The person in Germany that reported a similar contact said the person had a residence listed in Moscow.
As this pay-for-say, Pfizer bashing scheme unraveled, the EU agreed to a 1.8 billion-dose deal for the Pfizer vaccine around May 8, 2021. The Pfizer vaccine is widely used in Europe. Undermining trust in that vaccine could drive conflict within European countries, but it also might open the door to sales of Sputnik V.
An earlier instance, similar to the pay-for-say Pfizer disinformation campaign, was reported in Russia. TikTok received offers of money in January 2021 in exchange for publishing content discouraging people from protesting. Protests were related to the wrongful imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
See Appendix A: The Pfizer Influencer Disinformation Operation for the video and translated screenshots.
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.
—Leo and Lunden, 2021
Russia’s anti-Pfizer history
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.
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 phase 3 of the clinical trials, which is normally required for any new drug. Reservations about the Russian Sputnik V vaccine arose immediately. Scientists published letters of concern globally.
For definitions and the differences between mis-, dis-, and malformation, read The Basics. Examples of dis- and malformation headlines can be found below:
Tsargrad published eight articles attacking the Pfizer vaccine on Jan 15, 2021: “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 since 2016.
The evidence suggests it may have started much earlier — as far back as the early 2000s. Disinformation about SARS is nearly identical to that we saw almost 20 years later.
According to a study published in 2021, Russia has been spreading disinformation about infectious diseases since at least 1949. The first major campaign occurred during the Korean War in the 1950s. In the 1980s, the Kremlin also planted stories in newspapers worldwide that falsely suggested the US had created HIV at Fort Detrick, as detailed in a report by the Wilson Center and a subsequent video documentary.
Translation: “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.”
— handwritten letter by a Soviet KGB agent in September 1985
Following the renewed invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, we saw a similar tale of biological weapons. The narrative spread by Russian and Chinese state-affiliated accounts and far-right influencers in March 2022 appeared no later than 2017.
A pro-Kremlin hacking collective called CyberBerkut (recognized as a front for Russian intelligence) published the story, as did Russian state media. Later, in 2018, the FSB-controlled (the FSB is another arm of Russian intelligence) outlet South Front published this false narrative.
You can find some of the story timelines here: