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Google disables dozens of YouTube channels it says are spreading Iranian propaganda

Google (Pixabay/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Google says it has disabled dozens of YouTube channels and other accounts linked to an Iranian state broadcaster that it said was running a political influence campaign.

Google said on August 23 that its forensic research shows the accounts were set up by people associated with the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB).

The tech giant said it blocked 39 YouTube channels that had racked up a total of 13,466 views in the United States and disabled six accounts at Blogger and 13 accounts at its Google+ social network.

The cybersecurity firm FireEye, which alerted technology companies to some of the suspicious activity, said in a report this week that the overall operation originates from Iran and promotes Iranian interests to audiences in the United States and elsewhere.

IRIB didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

FireEye said that, combined with Facebook and Twitter moves on August 21 to remove fake accounts allegedly set up by Iran, the Iranian YouTube campaign shows that it’s no longer just Russia conducting disguised political influence campaigns on social media.

Facebook said it removed 652 suspicious web pages and accounts linked to Russia and Iran, while Twitter said it had deleted nearly 300 accounts.

In addition to removing the Iranian broadcaster accounts on YouTube, Google said it has also blocked “state-sponsored phishing attacks” in which deceptive messages were sent to users of its free e-mail service in an effort to trick people into disclosing information such as passwords.

“In recent months, we’ve detected and blocked attempts by state-sponsored actors in various countries to target political campaigns, journalists, activists, and academics located around the world,” Google said.

The California-based Internet giant added that in the past year it has strengthened defenses against “actors linked to” Russia’s Internet Research Agency, a so-called troll factory in St. Petersburg that has been charged with interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Tech companies are becoming much more proactive about ferreting out and quashing political influence campaigns by foreign governments since last year, when Facebook, Google, and Twitter were widely criticized for allowing Russian agents to spread propaganda on their networks during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Several companies are now offering specific help to protect U.S. political candidates from Russian hackers and other bad actors ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

Microsoft said this week it’s offering an AccountGuard service to federal, state, and local candidates of all parties as well as to party committees and certain nonprofit groups. The company said it might also work with other tech firms such as Facebook and Twitter on coordinated election security efforts, though no agreements have been made.

Google last year also launched a protection program for hacking targets such as politicians, journalists, and business leaders.

At least one prominent security expert believes it may be too late to stop foreign interference in November’s elections.

Alex Stamos, who stepped down as Facebook’s security chief last week, said in an online essay that U.S. officials haven’t taken the threats seriously enough.

He cited Microsoft’s revelation early this week that it discovered efforts by a hacking group tied to the Russian government to spoof websites belonging to the U.S. Senate and two conservative institutions. Such fake websites have previously been used by the group known as Fancy Bear to trick targeted victims into letting their computers be infiltrated.

Stamos said that “in some ways, the United States has broadcast to the world that it doesn’t take these issues seriously and that any perpetrators of information warfare against the West will get, at most, a slap on the wrist.”

He said “this failure has left the U.S. unprepared to protect the 2018 elections,” though there’s “still a chance to defend American democracy in 2020.”

The midterm elections in the United States are on November 6, but primary elections have already been held in many U.S. states.