Google Terminates YouTube Accounts Linked to Iran


Google is terminating YouTube channels and removing blogs and Google+ accounts linked to Iran.


Photo:

dado ruvic/Reuters

Alphabet
Inc.’s


GOOGL 0.25%

Google on Thursday said it had terminated dozens of YouTube channels found to be pushing misinformation on behalf of Iran’s state broadcasting arm.

The announcement marked the latest in a flurry this week from major technology companies detailing efforts to curtail foreign abuse on their networks.

Google’s investigators uncovered evidence that the accounts it took down are connected with the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, which has been under U.S. sanctions since 2012, and date back to at least January 2017.

The company said it had terminated 39 video channels on YouTube, six blogs on Blogger and 13 accounts on the Google+ social-networking hub that it found to be linked to the IRIB. The YouTube channels had collectively accumulated 13,466 U.S. views on its relevant videos, Google said.

“Actors engaged in this type of influence operation violate our policies, and we swiftly remove such content from our services and terminate these actors’ accounts,”

Kent Walker,

the company’s senior vice president of global affairs, said in a blog post announcing the actions.

A spokesman for the Iranian mission at the United Nations didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Google said it had briefed the Senate Intelligence Committee and law enforcement about its investigation, including how it relates to political content in the U.S.

The accounts linked to the IRIB “disguised their connection” to Iran’s covert influence operation, Google said.

Google also said it had removed 42 YouTube channels connected to the Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency since beginning to monitor that threat last year. Those channels had produced 58 English-language political views that accumulated fewer than 1,800 views in the U.S., Google said.

The Iranian effort was discovered by the security company

FireEye
Inc.,

which reported a handful of suspicious accounts operated under the name Liberty Front Press to Google,

Facebook
Inc.

and

Twitter
Inc.

about two months ago.

The fake accounts promoted “particular narratives and angles in line with Iranian national interests,” such as pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli stories, said

Lee Foster,

a manager with FireEye’s analysis group.

Google’s comes just days after Facebook said it had taken down 652 pages and accounts and Twitter suspended 284 accounts that were also part of Iranian influence efforts. At the time, YouTube said it had removed one account—also operating under the Liberty Front Press moniker—believed to be tied to Iranian state media.

Also this week,

Microsoft
Corp.

revealed that it had seized six spoofed internet domains set up by the same Russian hacking group linked to the 2016 election cyberattacks on the Democratic Party. Russian hackers appeared to be broadening their targeting ahead of U.S. midterm elections to include well-connected conservative groups, Microsoft said.

When

Clint Watts,

a research fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, first began studying Russian influence operations about five years ago, there was already evidence of this type of activity by Iran’s state media, he said. But Iran’s efforts haven’t received as much attention as Russia’s because they don’t appear to have focused on influencing U.S. elections. Iran’s goal is “trying to advance Iranian foreign policy,” Mr. Watts said.

Google’s disclosures come nearly a year after the company said it was conducting a broad investigation into foreign use of its services ahead of the 2016 elections, a probe which found that Russian-linked entities bought tens of thousands of dollars worth of politically motivated ads on its platform.

Google executives have appeared before Congressional committees this year, alongside officials from Facebook and Twitter, answering questions about how why their internet platforms were hijacked by foreign actors and what they are doing to prevent future abuses. Executives from all three companies are due back before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Sept. 5.

Google’s YouTube site is one of the world’s largest social-media communities, with more than 1.8 billion monthly users, compared with 2.2 billion on Facebook and 335 million on Twitter.

YouTube said in December that it would hire 10,000 moderators to help clean up content on the site after changing its algorithm to surface “more authoritative” news sources for people searching about breaking-news events. It also said earlier this month that it was planning to give users more context for videos promoting conspiracy theories or state-sponsored content.

Write to Robert McMillan at Robert.Mcmillan@wsj.com

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