Facebook: Scientist Behind Misinformation Doesn't Exist

Account claimed US was pushing its scientists to blame virus on China
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Dec 1, 2021 4:58 PM CST
Facebook: Scientist Behind Misinformation Doesn't Exist
Air China flight crew members wearing hazmat suits walk through the arrivals area at Los Angeles International Airport on Tuesday.   (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

A disinformation network with ties to China used hundreds of fake social media accounts— including one belonging to a fictitious Swiss biologist—to spread an unfounded claim that the US pressured scientists to blame China for the coronavirus, Facebook said Wednesday. The company based in Menlo Park, California, did not directly attribute the network to the Chinese government, the AP reports. But it noted employees of Chinese state-run companies, and the country's state-run media, worked to amplify the misleading claims, which were soon the subject of news headlines in China. Facebook said it removed about 600 Facebook and Instagram accounts in all.

"In effect it worked like an online hall of mirrors, endlessly reflecting the original fake persona and its anti-US disinformation," said Ben Nimmo, who leads investigations into disinformation at Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram. The operation began in July, when a Facebook account was created in the name of Wilson Edwards, a self-professed Swiss biologist. The account user claimed, without evidence, that US officials were using "enormous pressure and even intimidation" to get scientists to back calls for renewed investigations into the origin of the virus.

Within hours, hundreds of accounts—some of which were created that day—began liking, posting, or linking to the post. Many of the accounts were later found to be fake. Facebook said it found links between the accounts and a tech firm based in Chengdu, China, as well as to overseas employees of Chinese infrastructure companies. Within a week of the initial post, large media outlets in China were reporting on the claims of US intimidation as if they had been made by a real scientist. The operation was exposed when Swiss authorities announced in August that they had no record of any biologist with Edwards' name. "If you exist, we would like to meet you!" the Swiss embassy in Beijing tweeted.

(Read more misinformation stories.)

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