Website shuts down as its Pfizer vaccine conspiracy theories spread globally
False claims about Pfizer’s CEO and his spouse proliferated worldwide, translated into at least half a dozen languages.
BANNER: Vials with a sticker reading, “COVID-19 / Coronavirus vaccine / Injection only” and a medical syringe are seen in front of a displayed Pfizer logo in this illustration taken October 31, 2020. (Source: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/File Photo)
Facing potential legal action, a website that spread disinformation about the CEO of pharmaceutical company Pfizer has gone offline after it falsely claimed that CEO Albert Bourla had been arrested and his wife had died of vaccine complications.
The Conservative Beaver describes itself as “Conservative News. Canadian Style.” On November 5, 2021, it published a fabricated story claiming that Bourla had been arrested by the FBI for fraud, allegedly due to falsifying results regarding the company’s COVID-19 vaccine. The website published the story on the same day Pfizer announced that its experimental antiviral pill for COVID-19 cuts rates of hospitalization and death by 89 percent. Five days later, another fabricated story claimed Bourla’s wife had died of complications from the Pfizer vaccine. Both articles have since been deleted, and the website is no longer accessible.
On November 16, Pfizer filed a petition with the Supreme Court of the State of New York to request the identity of the “registrant and user(s)” of the Conservative Beaver website to its web-hosting company, DreamHost. The petition stated that Pfizer intends to file a defamation lawsuit against those running the website, noting that claims of Bourla’s arrest is “false and defamatory,” and that the fabricated article about Bourla’s wife’s death is “even more outrageous than the first.”
Fact-checking website Lead Stories published an in-depth investigation into the website, including its suspicious origins. At some point during the afternoon of November 24, the website went offline, but it is not clear if this action was taken by the site owner, the hosting company, or both. Notably, Lead Stories reported that the website’s about page briefly stated, “Now, it is time for us to go. Thanks for tuning in.” This raises the possibility that the site might have shut itself down to avoid further scrutiny.
The DFRLab analyzed how the false story about Pfizer’s CEO was amplified on social media and found the claim received global attention after it was translated into several languages. The claim spread across platforms, but it received the most engagement from Facebook groups and pages.
The Conservative Beaver
According to a WHOIS search, the Conservative Beaver domain was first registered on September 19, 2020, despite the website’s claim that it had been “informing Canadians for over 10 years,” which Lead Stories described in its investigation of the website as a “provable lie.” The search results did not, however, provide much detail about the site itself. Its IP address is based in San Jose, California, though this provides only limited information, given that website hosting services are often distributed around the globe with no direct geographic connection to the content being hosted.
According to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, the Conservative Beaver first published articles about Canadian sports, weather, celebrities, and incidents with local police, among other topics. While the Conservative Beaver has published some authentic stories, it has a history of spreading false news. Fact-checking organizations have debunked stories published by the Conservative Beaver on multiple occasions.
The website also has a track record of republishing articles originally shared by Russian state-owned platforms like Sputnik and RT. In the case of the latter, they appear to have copied and pasted at least one original story from the RT website — including promotional links to other RT stories that appeared in the same locations in the original article.
Spread of the fabricated story
According to an analysis conducted using the social media listening tool BuzzSumo, the fabricated article about the arrest of Bourla received 64,100 engagements on social media, with by far the largest share coming from Facebook.
After registering the website in September 2020, the Conservative Beaver published most of its content over one year, from November 2020 to November 2021. Despite partial data for November 2021, this was their most prolific month, with roughly 42 articles published and a total engagement of 104,549 at the time of writing. Comparatively, over the previous six months, only 40 articles were published in total. The article about Bourla was the most engaged-with article in November.
The third most engaged-with article in November 2021 was the fabricated story claiming Bourla’s wife had died from vaccine complications. PolitiFact, the US nonprofit fact-checking project operated by the Poynter Institute, debunked the story.
The article falsely claiming Pfizer’s CEO was arrested for fraud was translated into several languages and shared in several different online outlets with backlinks to the Conservative Beaver piece. The fabricated story was amplified in Russian, Czech, Greek, Italian, Japanese, and German, among other languages. The most engaged-with translations were in German, Czech, and Russian. Notably, the most engaged-with backlink was to a German-language blog that has since issued a correction, stating the originally published article was false.
The website’s most engaged-with articles over the past year all follow a similar pattern of falsely claiming a well-known individual has been arrested. For example, some of these stories incorrectly reported that Pope Francis and Joe Biden had been arrested. This suggests that the website attempts to capitalize on sensational headlines and extravagant claims to attract readers.
The DFRLab used the Facebook-owned social media listening tool CrowdTangle to analyze how the false story about Pfizer’s CEO was amplified on social media. The story was primarily circulated in various Facebook groups and pages. Some of the group names suggest that they are “resistance” groups, claiming that they are resisting their respective governments’ policies and “defending freedom of their people,” while others suggested they were explicitly anti-vax. Among the so-called resistance groups, the groups “LET’S GET OUR FREEDOM BACK BRITAIN 🇬🇧” and “Compassionate Canadians for Freedom” stated that it is time to limit the government’s power and to stand up for people’s rights. “🇦🇹 Neuwahlen für Österreich 🇦🇹 Demokratie JETZT,” meanwhile, suggested that Austria needs to change and people have the power to bring positive change. In contrast, “🇮🇹 FRONTE DELLA RESISTENZA POPOLARE 🇮🇹“ didn’t include any description, but a translation of the title itself suggests the similar pattern of group being a “front for popular resistance.” While these groups did not explicitly indicate being anti-vax, the content shared by their members suggests that they were being used for spreading anti-vaccination sentiments and calling on group members to resist vaccination policies.
The story appears to have reached a global audience as Facebook groups from different countries and in different languages shared the story. The fabricated story was shared by Portuguese, Slovak, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Greek, German, Japanese, Moroccan, French, and Georgian language groups, among others.
The DFRLab also analyzed the amplification of the article on Twitter using Hoaxy, a tool that visualizes the spread of claims. The Hoaxy analysis results suggested that in the period between November 5 and November 11, the article was shared by various Twitter accounts, but the connections among them were limited, indicating on the amplification was organic and not connected to a larger network.
As the pandemic drags on, various actors continued to push new types of conspiracies and disinformation to undermine trust in vaccines across the globe. Western manufacturers of the COVID-19 vaccine are repeated targets of disinformation, sometimes originating from states producing their own vaccines, like Russia and China, and other times originating with anti-vaccine activists. The DFRLab has previously covered the attempts to undermine trust in Western-developed COVID-19 vaccines. Targeting the CEO of Pfizer furthers the disinformation narratives that seek to undermine trust in vaccines.
Cite this case study:
Eto Buziashvili, “Mysterious website shuts down as its Pfizer vaccine conspiracy theories spread globally,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), December 2, 2021, https://medium.com/dfrlab/mysterious-website-shuts-down-as-its-pfizer-vaccine-conspiracy-theories-spread-globally-4c7f2ce46d07.