Fake Biologist Behind Post Claiming U.S. Scientists Told to Blame COVID on China: Facebook

A network helped spread false information about COVID-19 through many accounts, including that of a fictitious Swiss biologist, Facebook said on Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.

Wilson Edwards, a prominent account in the network, regularly posted that U.S. officials were using "enormous pressure and even intimidation" to get scientists to blame China for the emergence of COVID-19. Shortly after the Edwards account was made, hundreds of similar accounts began liking and sharing the false claim.

Facebook investigators, such as disinformation investigation leader Ben Nimmo, said it found links between the accounts and Chengdu, China-based technology company. Facebook said that the Chinese government does not appear to be part of the network, and the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it does not use what it called social media "trickery." However, many Chinese news outlets began citing Edwards' post in their coverage.

Ultimately, the Edwards account was revealed to be fake when Swiss authorities revealed they had no record of any biologist under that name. The Swiss Embassy in Beijing even poked fun at the account, saying "if you exist, we would like to meet you!"

It was not just Facebook that had the misinformation problem. Similar accounts were prevalent on Instagram and Twitter, which previously housed an account attributed to Edwards before it was suspended.

The disinformation network was revealed in a call to reporters that included a discussion about the deletion of about 600 Facebook and Instagram accounts as part of the purge.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Facebook Report
A network helped spread false information about COVID-19 through many accounts, including that of a fictitious Swiss biologist, Facebook said on Wednesday. Chesnot/Getty Images

"In effect it worked like an online hall of mirrors, endlessly reflecting the original fake persona and its anti-US disinformation," said Nimmo.

The operation began in July, when the Edwards account was created.

Many of the accounts were later found to be fake, with some of the users posing as westerners and others using likely fabricated profile photos. Facebook also found links between the accounts and overseas employees of Chinese infrastructure companies.

Efforts to contact the companies cited in the report weren't immediately successful on Wednesday.

Facebook uncovered fake accounts affiliated with the network that had also waded into U.S. politics last year, with some posting memes that both attacked and supported ex-President Donald Trump. One post on Instagram called him "the worst president ever!" The group behind the effort also created accounts on Twitter, which has since suspended the account supposedly created by Edwards.

Another person apparently working for the network posted instructions for reposting the claim in what Facebook determined was likely a sloppy mistake.

China's disinformation networks have consistently been haphazard, said Bret Schafer, who heads the information manipulation team at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a non-partisan think tank in Washington.

The network unearthed by Facebook show that the Chinese are still working on their influence campaign strategy, unlike Russia, which has spent decades crafting disinformation campaigns that target unwitting Americans online and go undetected for years.

"It didn't take long for this to be unraveled," Schafer said. "The Chinese are still a bit sloppier with what they do. I can't imagine the Russians doing something like this, where they just create a persona out of thin air."