In this edition of The Social Media Report, I take a look at the perhaps the most brazen of cases I’ve seen of weaponised influencer disinformation, in the form of an attempted smear campaign on Pfizer’s Covid vaccine through a set of European social media influencers.
I also have as usual my must-read articles of the week. Subscribe below if you’ve been sent this, and you’ll get every edition soon as it’s out.
Quantifying the deadly impact of Covid disinformation: reports published by the BBC and Forbes over the last year have looked to quantify the deadly impact of Covid disinformation on social media. The BBC has the number in the hundreds, Forbes in the thousands. The real number will be almost impossible to ascertain, but one thing that is certain is that bad information in the wrong hands is deadly.
Covid disinformation takes a dark turn: this is an area I have been researching for many years now, and disinformation has risen to the fore again in recent weeks with an unprecedented dark turn. Generally speaking, the examples of fake news online you will see day to day are typically low in profile and large in number, so alone tend not to be so startling that they are newsworthy. Alone, few single examples of organised disinformation campaigns online warrant the raising of an eyebrow.
In recent weeks, however, we saw a definite double eyebrow raising example of the lengths some will go to in order to spread fake news.
A Russia-linked, London-based social media agency began contacting German and French social media influencers asking them to share a smear campaign for seemingly unlimited “colossal” financial rewards. “Very interesting: an agency contacts me and asks if I want to be part of an “information campaign”,” the below tweet from German influencer reads. “It's about sharing a link to allegedly leaked documents on Coronavirus vaccination deaths. For money. Agency headquarters: London. Residence of the CEO: Moscow.”
You might hope that the high profile social media creators and influencers that were approached would both know their stuff and have integrity - and it appears that was the case, as they called out this approach publicly. Whilst none of the initial influencers who were approached appear to have publicly fallen for this big-budget smear campaign, I would be keen to know who else was being sent such offers for paid posts. But, as I have found when researching this area in the past, it’s not the high profile influencers that will go for something like this, but the less well versed may do. Not so many in number, but some will. Then the fake accounts, made to look real, are often behind the promotion of the fake news, and that can propel the disinformation to the millions.
The spotlight turns to the marketing company approaching the influencers: with the influencers who were approached quickly blowing the whistle, the spotlight turned to the ‘influencer marketing’ company that is behind it all. Quickly, Fazze.com has taken down swathes of content including the ‘contact us’ section from its website.
Social media influencers receive requests to be paid to share promotional messages more often than you might think. The sheer volume of unsolicited pitches that are sent out on a daily basis is eye watering. The higher profile pitches come with money attached, whereby the influencer is offered cash in return for social media posts, which is a delicate area to navigate. This is why institutions such as the ASA and Ofcom try to regulate through standards and rules for best practice. But many slip through the net.
Based on research carried out on the wording used in the pitches sent to social media influencers, I would imagine that a feasible set-up for the Pfizer smear campaign scenario is as follows:
A competitor to Pfizer would like its Covid vaccine to be promoted online, and discrediting Pfizer would help its chances of success.
A fake influencer marketing website is set up as a vehicle to send pitches to influencers, to disguise the Pfizer competitor’s intentions.
Light research into all of the above shows the countries and even organisations behind the set-up, through CEOs’ locations, wording from materials and techniques applied. “French media have pointed to the similarities between [this disinformation campaign’s messaging] and the official Twitter account of Russia’s Sputnik V – a viral vector vaccine like AstraZeneca – which has repeatedly claimed “real world data” shows they are “safer and more efficient” than mRNA vaccines.”, says The Guardian.
Safety nets for information online: creating safer systems for society online is something I feel passionately about, and educating users of the harms that are spread online, often not just by mere trolls, but organised groups, is key to raising awareness and helping solve the problem. But let’s see faster and more thorough intervention of examples such as this, so that it is a precedent for all the right reasons.
My must reads from this week
Here are the stories that I have been reading this week.
Facebook decides on two-year ban for Trump: this was passed from Facebook to its oversight board and back again, with the final decision coming just yesterday.
Nigeria blocks access Twitter after its president’s tweets deleted: President Buhari’s tweets which were making threats to the southeastern part of the country were deleted by Twitter.
Trump pulls plug on blog: the blog, which was designed to bypass bans from places like Twitter and Facebook, has been permanently shut now, just a month after it launched.
Linked to the above - Facebook changes rules for politicians: this will have a huge impact on political discourse and campaigning online.
Regulation of social media
EU and UK antitrust probes launched: on Facebook specifically for the way it promotes its own services.
They’re regulating all wrong: a long read in MIT Tech Review argues that data privacy violations from one company on one individual are pretty insignificant. But to groups or humanity as a whole is profound. Regulation should be of a certain treatment of data, not of companies directly.
Indian government vs social media part one: Twitter is stating that the Indian government is using "intimidation tactics" to police what it wants taken down from social media, and the social network is pushing for change.
Indian government vs social media part two: big tech, social networks and messaging apps are starting to comply with India's new tech rules that request such companies share contact details of the person responsible for compliance / content removal queries (most of them, but not yet Twitter).
Twitter audio ‘Spaces’ arrive on desktops: you can now listen into the Clubhouse clone on Twitter desktop, broadening its reach.
Facebook launching a newsletter: called Bulletin. The hot tickets on social media right now, audio and newsletters.
Report shows undisclosed political work with TikTok influencers: how TikTok’s political influencers have been using a ‘back door’ in report which criticises the social network for its ‘shady’ influencer marketing.
Does anyone ever win those Instagram giveaways? A popular technique for lower-level influencers to gain followers is to run competitions. An investigation has looked into whether anyone actually wins.
US visa applicants’ social media activity to be privatised again: Biden’s administration is winding back a proposal from the Trump-era to request social media handles from those applying for a Visa.
WhatsApp voice notes can now be sped up: click the 1.5x or 2x button next to voice notes that you’ve been left and they will speed up, saving valuable seconds. This is probably the most talked-about tech newness of the week here at Battenhall HQ.
Are 2x speed presentations the new way of reducing the time to absorb information? This article in TechCrunch caught my eye, because I love technology made by Phil Libin. I noticed he is now having meetings at his company recorded in advanced for him, then he’s watching them at 2x speed “because people can listen faster than people can talk” and that he has “stopped doing synchronous updates … we don’t have meetings anymore where people take turns updating each other because it’s not very efficient.”
Social robots for the old and lonely: they’re like pets, but need batteries instead of Pedigree Chum. The New Yorker’s 39-minute listen if you prefer to hear this long read rather than read it is a fascinating deep look into AI’s role as a companion to humanity. I’ve had it on in the background while writing this newsletter today. Bonus read: AI is reading our emotions all wrong. We’re doomed!
Zoom has somehow been painted as the villain of the pandemic: this article in The Atlantic explores why, and how we’ll miss it when it’s gone.
How Jersey managed to get its residents vaccinated: HBR explores the messaging and techniques used by The British Isle, Jersey, in order to explain why getting vaccinated is a good idea. It all lies in one word: because.
The Social Media Report is written by Drew Benvie, founder & CEO of Battenhall.