YouTube Dismantles ‘Influence Operation’ Targeting Hong Kong Protests, Avoids Discussing Its Reach

Secondary school students take part in a an anti- government student rally on August 22, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. The students gathered to support the ongoing protest movement and discussed the planned September student strike. Photo: Chris McGrath / Getty

YouTube has disabled some 210 channels it says were used in a coordinated “influence operation” spreading disinformation related to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. However, the company refused to answer any questions on Thursday when asked how users had been successfully targeted.

The channels it removed behaved “in a coordinated manner,” Shane Huntley, a software engineer on Google’s threat analysis team, said in blog post. Huntley offered no details regarding the substance of the videos removed, except to say the discovery was “consistent with recent observations and actions related to China announced by Facebook and Twitter.”

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According to the post, YouTube discovered that VPNs and “other methods” were used to conceal the accounts’ origins, in addition to “other activity commonly associated with coordinated influence operations.”

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Google declined to say how long the campaign had been up and running or how many people had viewed the videos. “We have no additional details to share at this time,” it said.

On Monday, Facebook removed five accounts and Twitter suspended 936 originating in China that the companies said were created to sow political discord. Twitter took the additional step of banning advertising from state-controlled media outlets. “Covert, manipulative behaviours have no place on our service,” the company said.

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Google, unlike Twitter, noticeably avoided directly implicating China, where it manufactures some of its hardware and opened an AI research center two years ago. (Bloomberg recently reported that Google is looking to move operations elsewhere due to U.S. tariffs.)

The Hong Kong protests were triggered in March by a proposed law that would have empowered authorities to extradite people to mainland China and Taiwan. Now estimated at around 1.7 million strong, the demonstrators have issued new demands for democratic freedoms and police accountability, and for city leaders to retract their characterization of the protests as a “riot.”

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