Secretly, a marketing agency offered to pay social media stars for spreading misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines. The influencers made it public that they were trying to recruit them.
Mirko Drotschmann (a German journalist and YouTuber) said, “It began with an email.”
Mirko usually ignores any offers from companies asking him to promote their products to his 1.5 million subscribers. He received a sponsorship offer in May that was unique.
Fazze, an influencer marketing agency, offered to pay him for promoting what it claimed was leaked information that indicated that the death rate in people who received the Pfizer vaccine had almost tripled that of those who received the AstraZeneca jab.
The provided information was not true.
Mirko quickly realized that he was being asked for disinformation in order to undermine public confidence and trust in vaccines during a pandemic.
Mirko says, “I was shocked,” and “then I became curious, what’s the secret to all this?”
Leo Grasset, a French science YouTuber, received a similar offer. If he accepted, the agency offered 2000 euros. Fazze claimed it was representing a client who wanted to remain anonymous.
Leo says, “That’s an enormous red flag.”
The false claims shocked both Leo and Mirko.
They pretend to be interested to learn more, and were given detailed instructions on what to say in their videos.
The brief stated that they should “Act as if you have passion and interest in the topic.”
They were instructed not to mention that the video was sponsored. Instead, pretend that they were giving advice spontaneously out of concern for viewers.
Social media platforms have rules which prohibit the disclosure of sponsored content. It’s also illegal in France and Germany.
Fazze briefed influencers to share an article in French newspaper Le Monde on a data breach at the European Medicines Agency.
Although the story was true, it didn’t mention any vaccine deaths. It would create the false impression that the leaked death rate statistics were a result of the leak.
The data that influencers were asked for had been compiled from various sources and removed from context.
It showed the number of people who died after having received different Covid vaccines. However, just because someone has died after receiving a vaccine does not mean that they are dead. They might have been in an accident that caused their death.
Statistics showed that there were more people who had received the Pfizer vaccine in the countries where they were taken. Therefore, it was expected that people would die sooner after receiving the Pfizer jab.
“If you don’t have any scientific training, it would be easy to say that these numbers are different. There must be a connection. Leo says that you can create any spurious correlation you like.
Influencers were also given a list with links to share. These articles contained dubious figures and all used the same set that allegedly showed the Pfzer vaccination was dangerous.
All articles except for the Le Monde story disappeared from the internet after Leo and Mirko exposed Fazze’s campaign on Twitter.
The disinformation campaign was, in every way, a failure.
At least four other influential people in France and Germany, including Mirko, have come forward to admit they rejected Fazze’s attempts to recruit them since Leo and Mirko whistled.
Daniel Laufer, a German journalist, identified two influential people who might have accepted the offer.
Indian YouTuber Ashkar Techy often makes humorous videos about cars and dating. Brazilian prankster Everson Zoio has over three million Instagram followers.
They posted uncharacteristic videos that shared the Fazze campaign message and the fake news links. Both had previously participated in Fazze promotions.
Daniel Laufer reached out to them. Everson Zoio, Ashkar Techy took down their videos but did not answer his questions. Both influencers were not available for comment by the BBC.
We tried to email the people who approached Mirko & Leo. We tried emailing the people who approached Mirko and Leo. However, we were not able to get an answer from Fazze but from AdNow’s domain.
Fazze is part of AdNow which is a digital marketing firm, registered in Russia as well as the UK.
Multiple attempts by the BBC to reach AdNow via phone, email, and even a courier to their Moscow headquarters have failed.
We were eventually able to reach Ewan Tolladay (one of two directors for AdNow’s British arm) who lives in Durham.
Mr Tolladay claimed that he was not involved in Fazze. He said it was a joint venture between Stanislav Fesenko, a Russian director, and another person whose identity he did not know.
He claimed that he had not been involved in the disinformation campaign. He claimed that he didn’t know Fazze had signed the contract before the news broke. We were not able to find out who the mystery client was.
He stated that AdNow was being shut down in the UK in light of the scandal. Fazze was also being closed down, he said.
We tried to get Mr Fesenko talking to us, but were unsuccessful.
Both French and German authorities launched investigations into Fazze’s influencer-related activities.
However, it is not clear who the mystery client of the agency is.
Rumours have swirled about Russian involvement in this scandal, as well as the Russian state’s interest in promoting its vaccine – Sputnik V.
Omid Nouripour (the German Green party’s foreign policy spokesperson) suggested that Moscow could be the motivation for the Fazze campaign.
He stated that “Badmouthing vaccines in West undermines trust and is supposed to increase Russia’s trust in its vaccines. There is only one side that benefits, and that is Russia.”
The Russian Embassy in London made the following statement: “We consider Covid-19 a global menace and are therefore not interested in undermining international efforts to fight it. We support the Pfizer vaccine being used as one way to deal with the virus.”
Fazze’s campaign failed, but Leo Grasset believes that it will not be the last attempt at disinformation using the power of social media influencers.
Leo Grasset, a French YouTuber, says that TV is not the best way to influence public opinion, particularly for young people.
Spend the same amount on YouTube creators and TikTok creators. This ecosystem is designed to disinformation as efficiently as possible.