Google has removed content from 39 YouTube channels which 13,466 total US views on “relevant videos”, 6 blogs on Blogger and 13 Google+ accounts. This was done after it discovered a misinformation campaign across these services and found evidence that the activity was backed by Iranian state actors.
Google said that these type of “influence operations” were targeting political campaigns, journalists, activists, and academics located around the world and violated its policies. It claims to use methods including IP blocking to prevent these users from creating advertising accounts.
What Google’s investigation has revealed so far
- The company has been investigating the influence attacks for the last two months with cybersecurity firm FireEye, which also helped unravel a similar influence campaign on Facebook and Instagram last week.
- Google identified evidence (such as domain ownership, account metadata and subscriber information) that the users behind these influence attacks were tied to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB).
- The influence attack has been ongoing since “at least January 2017,” according to Google.
- Out the accounts suspended, FireEye identified 3 Gmail accounts, 3 YouTube channels, and 3 Google+ accounts.
- Unlike Facebook, Google has not disclosed who or what the target(s) of these influence were, and where these accounts operated. It has also not furnished any details on the exact nature of activity these accounts were involved in, and if they were specifically targeting elections anywhere in the world, or in the US this November.
- In addition to Iranian influence campaigns, Google says it has continued to act against the Russian group Internet Research Agency (IRA). Google detected and removed 42 YouTube channels, which had 58 English-language political videos with fewer than 1,800 US views, and terminated an account associated with one blog on Blogger.
Facebook and Twitter purged hundreds of accounts as well
Last week, Facebook suspended 652 accounts, pages and groups for misleading users of Facebook and Instagram across the US, UK, Middle East, and Latin America. The company said that some of these pages, groups and accounts were linked to Iranian state media — 74 Pages, 70 accounts, and 3 groups on Facebook, as well as 76 accounts on Instagram. These accounts spent more than $6,000 on ads on Facebook and Instagram, paid for in US and Australian dollars. The first ad was run in Jan 2015, and the last was run in August 2018.
- Another cluster of 168 Pages and 140 accounts on Facebook, 31 accounts on Instagram were publishing content about Middle East politics in Arabic and Farsi, and also content about politics in the UK and US in English. These pages and accounts spent more than $6,000 on ads on Facebook and Instagram, paid for in US dollars, Turkish lira, and Indian rupees. Facebook has not disclosed how much of this spending was made in Indian rupees. As of now, it is unclear whether these accounts had anything to do with India, or Indian users of Facebook or Instagram, or if the ads were run by Indians.
- On the same day, Twitter suspended 284 accounts “for engaging in coordinated manipulation” and said that the accounts originated from Iran.
The effort seems to be a coordinated influence campaign spread across social media platforms and email. “Liberty Front Press” purported to be a “media organization comprised of independent journalists, activists, ..” routinely sourced material from legitimate news organizations like CNN and Politico. A web of dozens of accounts on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Google+ affiliated to the website and originating from Iran were discovered and suspended. The social media accounts published content “in line with Iranian interests” such as support for Palestine, anti-Trump and anti-Saudi themes.
In fact, FireEye’s investigation began only with Liberty Front Press and went on to uncover other clusters which were running simultaneous and multiple social media accounts spreading disinformation. “Real Progressive Front” calls itself “a progressive NGO that aims to support people’s movements for freedom, peace and justice, reaffirm civil rights and reduce the influence of money in politics.” Their website published both original and plagiarized political news stories. The contents were largely in line with Iranian interests, anti-Trump and anti-Saudi.
Tech giants met to talk about elections
Last week, tech giants in the US met to discuss election strategy and how to prevent foreign influence and disinformation campaigns in the upcoming US midterm elections in November. According to the report, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy Nathaniel Gleicher, invited representatives of a dozen tech companies, including Google, Microsoft, and Snapchat, to meet at Twitter’s headquarters.
The meeting will reportedly have multiple agendas focused on the elections: the work each of them have been doing to counter influence and misinformation attacks, the issues each company faces, and whether such meetings should become a policy. Earlier in May, nine of these dozen companies met to discuss similar issues with the US Homeland Security and the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force representatives.