‘Act like you have the passion’ How advertisers in Russia offered money to bloggers to spread disinformation about Western coronavirus vaccines
Around the same time in May 2021, a handful of journalists and bloggers in France and Germany tweeted screenshots of emails from managers at some kind of marketing agency asking them to share information about higher mortality rates in patients immunized with Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine relative to other vaccines. After reporters learned that the agency is based in Moscow, the company immediately deleted every trace of its existence on social media and stopped answering its telephones. French and German politicians and intelligence officials now demand an investigation into the Kremlin’s possible involvement in the matter. So far, Meduza and other news outlets have found no proof that the Russian authorities had any hand in spreading this disinformation about coronavirus vaccines, except for one woman with a middling career in Russia’s ruling political party who’s managed several legal entities linked to the marketing agency that paid to sling mud at Pfizer.
“I’m not talking about a product. All you’d need to do is share this information on your favorite social networks.” That was the request Léo Grasset, a French blogger, science communicator, and the head of the Dirty Biology YouTube channel, received from an advertising agency representative on May 19, 2021. After several more emails, which Grasset shared with Meduza, it became clear that the paid content being offered involved coronavirus vaccines, including a minute-long video that presented several theories about how Pfizer injections are supposedly three times likelier than shots of AstraZeneca to kill patients. The mainstream news media, the video claimed, is concealing this terrible truth.
In technical design specifications sent to Grasset, which he also shared with Meduza, the advertising agency stated immediately, in broken English: “Do not use words ‘advertising,’ ‘sponsored video,’ etc. in your posts, stories, and videos’! They should look like an advice to the audience. Present the material natively. Act like you have the passion and interest in this topic. Present the material as your own independent view.” The instructions also directed Grasset to share a hyperlink to one of a handful of articles: a report from Le Monde for his French-speaking audience and several more hyperlinks to other websites. Today, only the Le Monde hyperlink still works.
All of these texts address mortality records about vaccinated populations in different countries based on leaked correspondence from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in Amsterdam. Dutch investigators have attributed the cyberattack to hackers working on behalf of a foreign intelligence agency or military. On December 30, some of the stolen data appeared on the Russian-language website RuTOR, which markets itself as Russia’s “main black market forum.” Earlier this year, Dutch investigators told journalists that a Russian intelligence agency and Chinese spies each carried out separate cyberattacks on the EMA in 2020.
Most of the content Léo Grasset was asked to share is no longer accessible, though some is still available through the Wayback Machine and Google Cache. Short texts with all the same hyperlinks, data, and wording can be found on websites like lockonskins.co.uk, britainnews.net, and others.
These articles are all openly “anti-vaxxer,” arguing that the leaked data reveal a conspiracy to conceal evidence about the dangers of Pfizer’s coronavirus drug. The agenda is clear from the headlines: “A Vaccine That Can Kill You Faster Than COVID-19,” “A Hacker Like Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man on the World Wide Web,” and even “Do You Want to Die from COVID-19 or a Vaccine? Pfizer Will Help You Decide.” In all these texts, readers are warned that Pfizer’s coronavirus shot kills patients three times as often as those inoculated with AstraZeneca, or that more Pfizer patients have died than all people immunized with all other coronavirus vaccines.
The proof offered for this claim is a table comparing vaccine fatalities in different countries. Bloggers like Léo Grasset were instructed to tell readers that Le Monde published these data, but this is a lie.
Fun with numbers
Meduza was unable to determine the origins of the table, but the numbers it features overlap almost exactly with data shared on April 23, 2021, by the official Twitter account of the “Sputnik V” vaccine, which is mentioned nowhere in Fazze’s technical design specifications. Journalist Ernie Piper, who reports at Logically.ai on disinformation, was one of the first to notice that Fazze’s instructions, Sputnik V’s tweet, and Fazze’s homepage all use the same font (Montserrat). While this could be a mere coincidence, the two tables clearly draw on the same sources.
Sputnik V’s Twitter account belongs to the vaccine’s main sponsor and exporter, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which described the table tweeted on April 23 as “research by the Sputnik V Twitter team.”
The data featured in the tables mix statistics from official sources in the United States, European Union, and other countries from late April and March about vaccine side effects and possible vaccine deaths. Like the websites shared with Léo Grasset and other bloggers, the Sputnik V account has tweeted dubious interpretations of the mortality information, adding snark like what you find below:
Though the table reflects death rates that appear to be connected to differences in coronavirus vaccines, there are far simpler, more obvious explanations for the variance. For example, different vaccines were administered to different age groups with different mortality rates. Some vaccines were also administered over longer periods of time, creating more opportunities for natural deaths. Vaccines were also administered at different stages of the pandemic when infection rates varied. Additionally, the vaccines were administered in countries with different background mortality rates.
Sputnik V’s Twitter team and the anonymous authors behind Fazze’s “native advertising” also used raw hospital data, which report any adverse event regardless of proof that it was caused by a vaccine. In other words, it’s generally impossible to judge vaccine deaths based on these numbers.
The joys of anonymity
Calling himself Anton, the Fazze representative who contacted Léo Grasset wanted the paid content placed within a week and said money was no object. When Grasset asked who was paying for the campaign, Anton stressed that his client preferred to remain anonymous. After Grasse explained that concealing sponsored content violates YouTube’s rules, the correspondence abruptly ended. Anton’s messages listed personal contact information that included a Telegram account, but it had been deleted by the time Meduza tried to reach him.
Mirko Drotschmann, a German journalist and podcaster who runs a wildly popular YouTube channel about history, received a similar offer from someone at Fazze. Like Grasset, Drotschmann refused to collaborate, but several others apparently agreed to move forward with the mark. Researchers at Netzpolitik.org, a German project devoted to digital culture and rights, found bloggers in India and Brazil who posted exactly what appeared in Fazze’s technical design specifications. Their videos are now deleted and they are not speaking to journalists about the cote.
In all the correspondence with Fazze staff that bloggers have shared publicly, every email has come from an address at the domain “fazze.com.” Earlier versions of this website listed different office addresses, including 5 Percy Street in London. There are 177 different companies registered at that address, but not one of them is called “Fazze.”
Until June 2019, however, there was a firm at this address called “Adnow Ltd.” — a business co-founded in 2014 by a Russian national named Stanislav Fesenko. The company’s headquarters is currently registered in Budapest.
Meduza discovered that Adnow’s real office is located on Odessa Street in Moscow near the Nakhimovsky Prospekt subway station, where Russia’s National Register of Legal Entities lists two firms called “Adnow Media” and “Adnow Technologies.” A former employee (who asked to remain anonymous) told Meduza that he applied last fall through the website HeadHunter Group for a job “supervising foreign bloggers” at AD.RU. The work was unorthodox from the start: in his trial assignment, he was asked to send out letters on behalf of the Fazze company.
Stanislav Fesenko did not respond to Meduza’s messages. Neither did Natalia Obolenskaya, the CEO of Adnow Technologies, which technically hired the “foreign blogger manager” at Fazze who spoke to Meduza. Today, no one answers the phone number listed on the website adnow.media.
Meduza’s source says his work involved contacting foreign bloggers with offers to promote different products and services — mainly food supplements and online games. The job paid 25,000 rubles ($340) per month, plus a percentage of any sales, though the ex-employee says he never managed to make his quota and earn any commissions. The salary was delivered “under the table” through a simple transfer to his debit card.
Staff turnover was high under these work conditions, and Meduza’s source says he tendered his resignation from Fazze (technically, from Adnow Technologies) in December 2020, after just a few months on the job.
The Fazze company is a business subdivision of Adnow, according to a job advertisement for work with Spanish-speaking bloggers found by French journalist Antoine Daoust, who also identified several Russian-speaking Fazze employees on the social network LinkedIn. In their resumes, these individuals listed Adnow and Brand.ad — a domain that appeared in the contact information listed on an earlier version of the website fazze.com.
Immediately after Léo Grasset tweeted about his correspondence with a marketing agent at Fazze, everyone identified by Daoust quickly deleted their profiles on LinkedIn and scrubbed their accounts from other social networks and instant messengers. Meduza tracked down several more employees, but they ignored our phone calls and either deleted their messenger accounts or blocked our correspondents when we reached out with questions.
One of the Fazze employees Daoust identified on LinkedIn was a man named Vyacheslav U., who listed himself as a project manager at Adnow beginning in January 2014 (when the company was founded, according to the UK’s Companies House registrar). More recently, according to his profile, he was made Fazze’s executive director. Meduza’s source who worked at Fazze says his supervisor was named Vyacheslav Usoltsev. Meduza was unable to reach Usoltsev by telephone.
So who’s behind all this?
Last week, a French security official told The Wall Street Journal that the intelligence community in Paris plans to investigate the Russian authorities’ potential involvement in the spread of disinformation about the safety of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine. A day later, in an interview with Netzpolitik.org, German politician Omid Nouripour voiced similar concerns about Moscow’s possible role in the smear attacks.
So far, however, no one has found any evidence that links the Russian authorities directly to Fazze’s advertising campaign.
But Adnow is affiliated with another individual who happens to be at the center of a new investigative report from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: a woman named Yulia Serebryanskaya, who oversaw the political advertising department inside the central executive committee of Russia’s ruling political party in 2007. (On the website for the “Russian Initiative” movement, which Serebryanskaya founded in 2017, that’s how she describes her work with United Russia.)
Serebryanskaya’s movement advocates a variety of causes — a wide variety — ranging from legal support for the Russian sailors arrested in Greece in 2019 (for trafficking migrants) to Russian-language promotion abroad and even a campaign to include the Russian word “podvig” (meaning: an act of valor) in different foreign languages. Serebryanskaya has ambitions of her own, as well: In 2019, she tried to run as an independent in Moscow’s City Duma elections, but she failed to collect enough signatures to register her candidacy.
According to Russia’s National Register of Legal Entities, Serebryanskaya co-owns and manages multiple companies, including the now-defunct “Adnow” and “Adnow Inc.” In Great Britain, Adnow is registered as a legal entity with the Companies House using the online domain darix.com, which belongs to her business “Darix LLC.” Serebryanskaya did not respond to Meduza’s messages.
We will continue to investigate this story.
If you have any information about the people responsible for this disinformation campaign against Western coronavirus vaccines, you can share the data with us at firstname.lastname@example.org or anonymously through SecureDrop.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock