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YouTube Disables 210 Channels That Spread Disinformation About Hong Kong Protests

SAN FRANCISCO — YouTube said on Thursday that its site was used to spread disinformation about the mass protests in Hong Kong, days after Twitter and Facebook cracked down on thousands of China-backed accounts that compared the demonstrators to terrorists and accused them of being at the whim of foreign interests.

In a blog post, YouTube said it had disabled 210 channels this week that had uploaded videos about the protests in Hong Kong. The channels had worked in a coordinated fashion to spread disinformation, the company said. YouTube, which is owned by Google, did not specify when the channels were taken down.

Shane Huntley, a software engineer on Google’s threat analysis team, said the channels that were removed were “consistent with recent observations and actions related to China announced by Facebook and Twitter.”

Facebook and Twitter said on Monday that they had removed thousands of accounts that originated in China and that acted together to amplify messages and images portraying Hong Kong’s protesters as violent and extreme. It was the first time that the social media companies had removed accounts linked to disinformation in China. At the time, Twitter said it had “reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation.”

The revelations highlight how China has embraced Western social media platforms to disseminate its messaging, employing techniques that were pioneered by Russia several years ago. Russia has used Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and other social media to distribute divisive and inflammatory content, including ahead of the 2016 American presidential election.

China has historically not needed Western social media as much because Beijing exerts tight control over the internet through a system of filters known as the Great Firewall. But people in Hong Kong, a former British colony that has a different governance system than the rest of China, widely use Facebook and Twitter and other Western social media apps.

In its blog post on Thursday, YouTube did not address why it disclosed the disinformation channels days after Facebook and Twitter had revealed their findings. Unlike Twitter and Facebook, the company also did not include examples of the content it removed.

VideoFor more than two months, antigovernment protests have gripped Hong Kong, with anger rising over China’s growing influence. Here are tactics the Chinese government is using to frame the narrative.

YouTube and Mr. Huntley did not respond to requests for comment.

“This aspect of the information operation is much like the Twitter or Facebook content, part of a larger whole that goes across platforms,” said Graham Brookie, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “Each one of those parts is extremely important in terms of understanding the larger network.” He added that YouTube rarely released data about content it removes to researchers, and that the company may fear amplifying false content by publishing it.

According to a database of the Twitter accounts that posted disinformation about the Hong Kong demonstrations, which was provided by Twitter this week, some of the accounts routinely posted links to YouTube videos. Mr. Brookie said his team found thousands of YouTube videos in the database.

Some of that content appeared benign — including cooking tutorials — and remains live on YouTube. But many of the YouTube videos shared on Twitter had been removed and replaced with messages stating that the YouTube accounts had been terminated. It was unclear if the accounts had been removed by YouTube or by their operators.

Archives of the removed videos, hosted by the digital library the Internet Archive, showed that some of them focused on Chinese political issues beyond the huge protests in Hong Kong. Several removed videos featured the exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, who has used social media to accuse leaders of the Chinese Communist Party of corruption. The videos said Mr. Guo was a fraud.

YouTube said it would continue to allow media outlets backed by the Chinese government to post and advertise on its platform. Twitter had said on Monday that it would ban state-backed media from posting ads on its service.

Even though the major Western social platforms are blocked within China, Chinese state news outlets have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to build their presence on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other sites, government procurement records indicate.

YouTube inconsistently identifies content that has been sponsored by a government, using a warning label format that it has also deployed to guide viewers away from violent or anti-Semitic content.

One YouTube video of a comedy routine posted Shanghai Media Group, and tweeted by an account Twitter linked to the Chinese disinformation campaign, came with the label: “SMG is funded in whole or in part by the Chinese government.” But another video from China Central Television that was tweeted by accounts linked to the disinformation campaign carried no such label.


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