YouTube’s parent company, Google, has announced that it was disabling 210 channels that were part of a “coordinated” campaign to mold public opinion about the pro-democracy protests that have gripped Hong Kong for months.
In a blog post on Thursday, Google said it had discovered the channels “in this network behaved in a coordinated manner while uploading videos related to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.
“This discovery was consistent with recent observations and actions related to China announced by Facebook and Twitter,” Google added. “We found the use of VPNs and other methods to disguise the origin of these accounts and other activity commonly associated with coordinated influence operations.”
Google did not elaborate on the specifics of what the videos contained. But similarities in the recent Twitter and Facebook takedowns makes it likely the videos were spreading disinformation suggesting the Hong Kong protests were violent and did not represent the majority of residents.
Twitter said earlier in this week that it deleted 936 accounts and shut down a spam network of more than 200,000 accounts, which it described as a “significant, state-backed information operation focused on the situation in Hong Kong.” The accounts were “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord,” it said. Facebook, for its part, removed seven pages, three groups and five accounts.
Both Twitter and Facebook said the accounts were linked to individuals associated with the Chinese government, which has been struggling to control the narrative surrounding the Hong Kong protests. The Facebook and Twitter accounts sought to portray the protests as violent — one compared the protesters to ISIS, while another described the protesters as “cockroaches”.
In reality, the Hong Kong protests, save a few scuffles, have been nonviolent. Last Sunday, for instance, hundreds of thousands of people marched through the city’s Victoria Park in a completely peaceful demonstration, marking the 11th week of protests. (Organizers claimed as many as 1.7 million people took part, but there is no way to independently verify that.)
Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are all blocked in China, making it easier for the regime to portray the Hong Kong protests as the actions of a violent minority. The discovery of Chinese disinformation on major tech platforms, however, shows that strategy is not having the same success on the outside world. Twitter made such a strategy even more difficult by forbidding Chinese-run state media outlets from promoting their tweets so they would appear prominently on timelines.
Meanwhile, the world has looked on with trepidation as Chinese military forces begin to amass in Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong. An adviser to Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, has warned that the People’s Liberation Army could move into the city if the situation further deteriorates.