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Google took down 39 YouTube channels linked to Iranian influence campaign

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Google today disclosed details about its ongoing efforts to combat influence campaigns from foreign governments and other forms of election interference, with the company outlining its recent ban of 39 YouTube accounts linked to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. Google’s announcement comes on the heels of Facebook’s admission earlier this week that it identified and deleted more than 600 accounts linked to both Iran and Russian that were coordinating influence campaigns on the platform by posting politically charged content.

Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president of global affairs, says Google’s Threat Analysis Group worked alongside its Trust & Safety team and its Jigsaw division, its policy think tank-turned ideas lab focused on cyberattacks and other geopolitical issues, to identify the Iranian influence campaign.

They did so with help from FireEye, an independent cybersecurity consultant that first disclosed information about Iran’s influence campaign on US social media sites earlier this week. In addition to the US, Iran appears to be targeting citizens in the UK, Latin America, and elsewhere in the Middle East, according to FireEye. The company’s full report on this specific Iranian influence operation was also published today. FireEye was instrumental in helping both Facebook and Twitter identify the Iran and Russia-linked state-sponsored accounts that were banned earlier this week.

According to Walker, Google collected evidence that linked the operators of 39 YouTube accounts — as well as six blogs on its self-publishing platform Blogger and 13 Google+ accounts — to the IRIB. The YouTube accounts only generated a little more than 13,000 views. Although Google says it cannot share concrete evidence with the public because its working closely with law enforcement, it describes the information linking these operations to Iran as related to domain ownership and account metadata. Google says the operation has been ongoing since January of 2017.

In addition to the Iran-linked social media influence campaigns, Google says it’s also detected state-sponsored phishing attacks targeting political campaigns, journalists, activists, and academics not just in the US, but globally. Walker says Google’s automated systems are helping it cut down on the volume of phishing attacks that ever make it to an unsuspecting user’s Gmail inbox. Earlier this week, Google posted a notice to its security blog discussing government-backed phishing attacks. The company says it’s also regularly notifying users and law enforcement about suspicious emails that seem to be part of a coordinated campaign.

Walker also outlined efforts by the Russian government Internet Research Agency (IRA), one of the primary misinformation peddlers on Facebook that also engaged in the spread of misinformation on Google-owned websites last year as part of a broader election influence campaign.

“Since then, we have continued to monitor our systems, and broadened the range of IRA-related actors against whom we’ve taken action,” Walker writes. “Specifically, we’ve detected and removed 42 YouTube channels, which had 58 English-language political videos (these videos had a total of fewer than 1,800 U.S. views). We’ve also identified and terminated the account associated with one blog on Blogger.”

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