Buried deep within Facebook’s November report on Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior is a tale of international intrigue that seems more like a Netflix drama than an attempted disinformation campaign (although the way Netflix mines social media for ideas these days, maybe stay tuned). On July 24th, a Swiss biologist named Wilson Edwards claimed on Facebook and Twitter that the US was pressuring World Health Organization (WHO) scientists studying the origins of COVID-19.
His claims spread quickly on social media, as such claims are wont to do, and within a week’s time, the Global Times and People’s Daily, two state-run Chinese media outlets, were denouncing Wilson Edwards’ claims as “intimidation” by the US. Wilson Edwards created his Facebook account two days after China refused to accept a plan by the WHO for a second phase study into the origins of the coronavirus.
Have you guessed the plot twist yet? Turns out, according to the Swiss Embassy in Beijing, that there is no such Swiss citizen by the name Wilson Edwards. “If you exist, we would like to meet you! But it is more likely that this is a fake news, and we call on the Chinese press and netizens to take down the posts,” the embassy tweeted from its official account on August 10th.
Facebook investigated and removed the Wilson Edwards account the same day the Swiss embassy tweeted. Ben Nimmo, global IO threat intel lead (excellent title for our drama) at Facebook parent company Meta, writes that the Wilson Edwards account was part of a misinformation campaign that originated in China.
“In essence, this campaign was a hall of mirrors, endlessly reflecting a single fake persona,” Nimmo says. Meta’s investigation found that nearly the entire initial spread of the Wilson Edwards story on Facebook was inauthentic: “the work of a multi-pronged, largely unsuccessful influence operation,” which brought together hundreds of fake accounts as well as some authentic accounts that belonged to employees of “Chinese state infrastructure companies across four continents.”
Only a handful of real people engaged with Wilson Edwards, Meta says, despite the 524 Facebook accounts, 20 Facebook pages, four Facebook groups, and 86 Instagram accounts that the company has removed as part of its investigation. The scammers spent less than $5,000 on Facebook and Instagram ads as part of the campaign and used VPNs to conceal the accounts’ origins.
“This is consistent with what we’ve seen in our research of covert influence operations over the past four years: we haven’t seen successful IO campaigns built on fake engagement tactics,” Nimmo says. “Unlike elaborate fictitious personas that put work into building authentic communities to influence them, the content liked by these crude fake accounts would typically be only seen by their ‘fake friends.’” (And we all know what happens to sham friends.)
The cluster of fake accounts that Meta connected to the Wilson Edwards scheme, along with some people associated with information security firm Silence in China, apparently has made (unsuccessfully, Meta says) other attempts at influence operations that were “typically small-scale and of negligible impact.”
It’s not the most exciting end to our story, but at least Wilson Edwards won’t try to catfish any other international health organizations. Now, if we could just get someone to rein in the tenacious people who keep calling about the car warranty I didn’t know I had…