INFLUENCERS have been offered lucrative deals to smear the Pfizer Covid vaccine in a shady fake news campaign.
Social media stars with hundreds of thousands of followers have said a mysterious advertising agency offered to pay them if they agreed to criticise the jab.
French YouTuber Léo Grasset said he was offered a potentially lucrative – but also "hush-hush" deal – to make bogus claims that Pfizer's vaccine posed a deadly risk.
He was also asked to claim that regulators and the mainstream media were covering up the supposed dangers of the jab.
Grasset, who has 1.1 million subscribers on YouTube, said he refused the deal from the agency called Fazze.
Other France-based influencers with sizable audiences on Twitter and Instagram also said they were contacted with similar offers of cash for fake posts.
The person who contacted Grasset said he was called Anton and said his agency has a "quite considerable" budget for "an information campaign about Covid and the vaccines offered in Europe – notably AstraZeneca and Pfizer".
Anton asked for a 45 to 60-second video on Instagram, TikTok or YouTube to say the "mortality rate of the Pfizer vaccine is three times greater than the AstraZeneca" and to question why the EU is buying it.
The two-dose Pfizer vaccine – produced by America's Pfizer and Germany's BioNTech – is the most commonly administered vaccine in France.
"This is a monopoly and is causing harm to public health," Anton claimed in his pitch to the influencers.
In a follow-up email, Anton refused to disclose who was financing the disinformation campaign.
"The client prefers to remain incognito," he said, according to emails shared with the Associated Press.
'ALWAYS BROUGHT US TO RUSSIA'
But French broadcaster BFMTV quoted Antoine Daoust, the co-founder of fact-checking website Fact N Furious, as saying: "We couldn't find much on Fazze on Google so we went to Yandex, the Russian search engine.
"We came across a job offer in Moscow, a customer service position for Fazze.com."
Daoust added: "The more we dug, the more we noticed that it was a tangled ball. But the end of the line always brought us to Russia."
YouTuber Grasset said he decided not to accept the deal.
"Too many red flags," he said. "They wanted me to talk about the Pfizer vaccine in a way that would be detrimental to the Pfizer vaccine reputation."
French Health Minister Olivier Veran slammed the smear campaign as "pathetic".
"It's pathetic, it's dangerous, it's irresponsible and it doesn't work," he said.
According to French newspaper Le Parisien, a website for Fazze used to give a London address – but that had been scrubbed from the site on Tuesday.
Companies House, where British firms are registered, has no record of Fazze.
Anton's emails included a password-protected link to a set of instructions in error-strewn English for the would-be smear campaign.
The instructions said influencers shouldn't say they were being sponsored and should instead "present the material as your own independent view".
Grasset said the disinformation effort emphasised the need for people "to be super, super cautious".
'JUST THE BEGINNING'
"We creators on YouTube, on internet, Instagram, et cetera, we are at the centre of something going on like an information war," he said.
"We, as creators, need to set our standards really high because it's, I think, just the beginning."
A trainee doctor in southern France with tens of thousands of followers was also approached for the smear effort.
He told French broadcaster BFMTV he was offered more than €2000 euros for a 30-second video post.
It comes after it emerged that Russia's fake news factories are churning out claims that the Oxford University Covid vaccine turns people into monkeys.
Memes, posters and videos depicting the British-made vaccine as dangerous have been found flooding the internet.
It’s thought to be a ploy targeting countries such as Brazil and India, where Russia wants to sell its own Putin-backed Sputnik V vaccine.
One poster featuring an image of King Kong wielding a syringe says: "Don’t worry, monkey vaccine is fine."
Pascal Soriot, chief executive of Astrazenca, told The Times: "Misinformation is a clear risk to public health.
"I urge everyone to use reliable sources of information, to trust regulatory agencies and to remember the enormous benefit vaccines and medicines continue to bring to humanity."
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