Google announced the action Thursday, three days after Facebook and Twitter said they had removed accounts identified as linked to China-backed disinformation campaigns on their platforms aiming to discredit Hong Kong protesters.
While Google did not identify the YouTube channels it pulled down, the company said they were operating in a “coordinated manner” to upload misleading videos related to the Hong Kong protests. “This discovery was consistent with recent observations and actions related to China announced by Facebook and Twitter,” Shane Huntley, director of software engineering in Google Security’s Threat Analysis Group, wrote in a blog post.
Huntley said that the channels used virtual private networks (VPNs) and other methods to mask the origin of the accounts, along with other activity “commonly associated with coordinated influence operations.”
YouTube, Google, Facebook and Twitter are all blocked in China, which operates one of the strictest censorship regimes in the world. That has not stopped Chinese state-run media outlets from posting content to such platforms themselves and spending “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to promote it in an attempt to find a wider audience for their messages, according to the New York Times.
Disney has become caught up in the fray after Crystal Liu Yifei, the star of its upcoming live-action “Mulan” film, expressed support for the Hong Kong police, who have been accused by bodies such as the U.N. Human Rights office of violating international norms in their use of force against the demonstrators. Accounts within China and abroad posting messages similar to those removed by Twitter and Facebook continue to proliferate under the hashtag #SupportMulan. Some compared the protesters to terrorists and cockroaches, and portrayed them as a violent mob incited by meddling foreign powers.
The U.S. State Department has expressed its concern over “Chinese attempts to manipulate public opinion by spreading disinformation about the situation in Hong Kong.” But Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, told journalists that “the will of 1.4 billion people cannot be blocked or controlled, and of course cannot be shut out.”
Despite their best efforts, YouTube and other platforms — playing a game of Whac-a-Mole with bad actors — can’t fully shut off attempts to spread propaganda.
Google’s threat analysis group sends more than 4,000 warnings on a monthly basis to users about attempts by “government-backed attackers or other illicit actors” to infiltrate their accounts, according to Huntley. “Our teams will continue to identify bad actors, terminate their accounts, and share relevant information with law enforcement and others in the industry,” Huntley wrote.