Information operations · Information Warfare · Iran

Google Deletes 39 YouTube Channels Linked to Iranian Influence Operation


Russia and China have been joined by another rogue state, Iran, in attempting to influence other countries via YouTube.  There is no doubt that Facebook and Twitter are used by them, as well.

This portends to show online guerrilla warfare of the future for less-than-peer states as well as non-state actors.  

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By Daisuke Wakabayashi

SAN FRANCISCO — Two days after Facebook revealed far-reaching Iranian and Russian disinformation campaigns on its social network, Google said Thursday that it had removed 39 YouTube channels linked to the Iranian state broadcaster.

Google, which owns YouTube, said in a blog post that it had determined the 39 YouTube channels were linked to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. It discovered those accounts working off a tip from the cybersecurity firm FireEye about a handful of suspicious Google accounts.

Google terminated those accounts, along with six blogs on its Blogger service and 13 Google+ accounts, for running an influence campaign starting as early as January 2017 while disguising its connection to Iran, said Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president of global affairs. Google said those accounts had shared “English-language political content in the U.S.,” but it did not provide detail on what types of videos or content.

Google revealed the new influence campaigns taking place through its products after Facebook and Twitter announced that they had deleted similar accounts. It is another indication of the growing efforts by state-sponsored actors to use the social media platforms of American companies for politically motivated purposes.

While YouTube is the most popular online video platform, with nearly two billion visitors every month, it has managed to avoid the scrutiny heaped upon Facebook for its involvement in spreading misinformation by foreigners. In part, that is because sharing content to other users across its network is not as easy.

Google’s attempts to build a social network to rival Facebook have largely flopped, so fake Google+ accounts reach a limited audience — making it unpopular among both users and foreign manipulators.

Google said Tuesday that it suspended one account linked to an Iranian influence campaign. Google said that “relevant videos” on the 39 now-deleted YouTube channels had 13,466 total views in the United States — a relatively small number for YouTube. It did not define what constituted a relevant video.

Those YouTube channels were terminated over the last few weeks, said Rob Shilkin, a Google spokesman.

Google said it had used forensic evidence, such as common internet protocol addresses and website domain information, to conclude that the misinformation campaign was a coordinated attack from Iran’s state broadcaster.

“This finding is consistent with internet activity we’ve warned about in recent years from Iran,” Mr. Walker wrote. He added that Google had warned its users about email “phishing” attempts and security attacks from Iran.

A report published by FireEye regarding an Iranian influence campaign aimed at audiences in the United States, Britain, Latin America and the Middle East provided a few examples of YouTube accounts that were trying to advance Iran’s interests. One of those channels was called Liberty Front Press — the account that Google said it had deleted earlier in the week — featuring videos with titles like “Rudy Giuliani: Mueller probe now illegitimate” and “New C.I.A. chief followed the law, served the country.”

Facebook said Tuesday that it had deleted 652 accounts, many of them with Iranian ties. A number of those accounts had been sharing content from Liberty Front Press.

In October, Google said it had deleted 18 accounts with links to the Internet Research Agency, a company tied to the Kremlin, that uploaded English-language political content. The channels had uploaded more than 1,100 videos spanning 43 hours.

Google said Thursday that it had detected and removed an additional 42 channels from “I.R.A.-related actors” since last year. Those channels had 58 English-language political videos, which had accumulated fewer than 1,800 views.

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