Mysterious marketing firm 'secretly offered to pay YouTubers to spread lies about Covid-19 vaccines'
YouTubers approached for shady fake news scheme
Conspiracy theories are both alluring and inherently dangerous. From flat earth theory to Birds Aren't Real, these movements are largely based on speculation and a cherry-picking of facts that align with their motives.
But one of the latest conspiracy theories to hit the net is a little more concerning than the loonies who are following birds around to check for USB ports.
Fazze, an influencer marketing agency, has been offering to pay influencers with considerable followings to spread misinformation about the pandemic. German Youtuber Mirko Drotschmann spoke to the BBC about his connection with the company.
"I was shocked," says Mirko, "then I was curious, what's behind all that?"
Science YouTuber Léo Grasset received a similar offer, with Fazze claiming they were acting upon the wishes of an anonymous client. Feigning interesting, both Youtubers played along to gather more information on the troubling request.
"Act like you have the passion and interest in this topic," read the brief.
Despite it being a law to reference whether content has a sponsor, the brief requested that they omit this truth. Instead, they were told to say the content came for fear of the health of their fans. The YouTubers were told to reference a story in the French newspaper Le Monde. The BBC reports that although the story was genuine, it did not include anything on vaccine deaths and in this context would have given a false impression of death rate statistics.
"If you don't have any scientific training, you could just say, 'oh, there are these numbers, they are really different. So there must be a link.' But you can make any spurious correlation as you want really," Léo says of the brief.
Alongside this, the content creators were also asked to link to questionable articles which all used the same set of figures to paint the Pfizer vaccine as dangerous. But when When Léo and Mirko exposed the Fazze campaign on Twitter, all the articles, except the Le Monde story, vanished from the internet.
Since the two blew the top off the campaign, four other European influencers have come forward to say they also rejected Fazze's request. However, German journalist, Daniel Laufer, thinks two influencers, in particular, have accepted the offer.
Ashkar Techy and Everson Zoio have never covered politics, social issues, or even the pandemic. However, Laufer has since identified that they are now covering a set of similar data. Both Laufer and the BBC attempted to contact the influencers, but neither responded and they removed their videos relating to the data set.
The BBC discovered that Fazze's parent company Adnow is registered in both the UK and Russia. Despite attempting to contact their head office in Moscow, they could not get through to a representative. Eventually, they were able to contact one of two directors, Ewan Tolladay.
Tolladay said he had very little to do with Fazze, and that his colleague Stanislav Fesenko and an unknown third party oversaw that section of the business.
"Bad-mouthing vaccines in the West undermines trust in our democracies and is supposed to increase trust in Russia's vaccines, and there is only one side that benefits and that is the Kremlin," said Omid Nouripour, the foreign policy spokesman for the German Green party.
Though the mystery client is yet to be discovered, many are drawing an obvious connection between the scandal and Russia. But Léo urges people to be cautious.
"If you want to manipulate public opinion, especially for young people, you don't go to TV," says Léo.
"Just spend the same money on TikTok creators, YouTube creators. The whole ecosystem is perfectly built for maximum efficiency of disinformation right now."