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YouTube said Thursday it had disabled over two hundred channels that appeared to be part of a coordinated campaign to undermine the Hong Kong protest movement, just days after Twitter and Facebook took similar steps.
But many YouTube channels pushing Beijing’s narrative about Hong Kong — including that the protest movement is being orchestrated by Washington — remain online, and Hong Kongers are warning that the social media giant has more to do to combat misinformation about the protests.
“As part of our ongoing efforts to combat coordinated influence operations, we disabled 210 channels on YouTube when we discovered channels in this network behaved in a coordinated manner while uploading videos related to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong,” Shane Huntley of Google Security’s threat analysis group wrote in a blog post.
While the post didn’t explicitly blame Beijing for the campaign, it said the discovery “was consistent with recent observations and actions related to China announced by Facebook and Twitter.”
“We found use of VPNs and other methods to disguise the origin of these accounts and other activity commonly associated with coordinated influence operations,” it said. VPNs are required to access Western social media services in Mainland China, where the platforms are officially banned.
Both Twitter and Facebook said, in announcing they had suspended nearly 1,000 suspicious accounts Monday, that they had uncovered evidence linking the campaign to the Chinese government. Twitter called the network part of a “a coordinated state-backed operation” to “sow discord” in Hong Kong.
But many YouTube channels pushing the Chinese government’s line on the protests remained on the platform Friday, prompting calls for the tech giant to do more to tackle the issue.
The videos, produced in Putonghua, the standard version of Chinese spoken on the Mainland, push messaging consistent with the Chinese government’s line that the protests are being fomented by the U.S.
One channel with nearly 230,000 subscribers publishes videos that presented as reports from a television news station, and that closely echo the narratives of Chinese state media. One clip, attacking certain Hong Kong media outlets as “yellow journalists” who present an allegedly one-sided, pro-protester version of events, was published a day after the Chinese state-run Global Times published an article on the same topic.
Another clip, posted Friday morning, railed against protesters for shining laser pointers at the Chinese military’s garrison in Hong Kong during protests. “It is unforgivable. Crush the … thugs in one blow!” read the title.
The channel's description, claims it is based in the U.S., and trumpets an accolade from a state-run Chinese newspaper that describes the channel as “a firm practitioner of the core values of socialism with Chinese characteristics” — a phrase widely used to describe Chinese Communist Party’s ideology.
Hong Kongers are urging YouTube to take further action to clamp down on Chinese misinformation on the platform. One concerned Hong Konger, who did not want to be identified due to the sensitivity of the political situation, told VICE News that he believed YouTube has an even bigger problem than Facebook and Twitter, and that the accounts appeared to be controlled or directed by the Chinese government, as they echoed the Chinese government’s narrative on the protests.
Unlike Twitter and Facebook, YouTube gave no examples of the content that was published on the suspended channels, prompting researchers to call for the platform to share the content. “Good on Google, but it would be really helpful for it to release data on these accounts, as Twitter has done (or even samples as Facebook has,” tweeted Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy. “It's important both to inform efforts to counter these activities & for building resiliency against these kinds of activities.”
The Chinese influence campaign has heightened tensions between Beijing and Washington, which are currently engaged in a protracted trade war.
China’s foreign ministry objected to the closing of the social media accounts, with spokesman Geng Shuang saying Tuesday: “I believe people around the world will come to their own judgment about what happens in Hong Kong and what is the truth.”
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), vice-chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, said Thursday that China was attempting to exert “social control” overseas.
“As I’ve emphasised previously, China has long been a pioneer in harnessing communications technologies for social control, censorship and surveillance,” he said.
Cover: Demonstrators shine laser pointers during a protest at the Yuen Long MTR station in Hong Kong, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019. Hong Kong riot police faced off with protesters occupying a suburban train station Wednesday evening following a commemoration of a violent attack there by masked assailants on supporters of the anti-government movement. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)