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Google not blaming China for Hong Kong disinfo, unlike Twitter, Facebook

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Google’s refusal to call out China after tackling a disinformation campaign around the Hong Kong protests — days after Facebook and Twitter blamed China outright— could ignite criticism about the company’s ties to Beijing.

Google announced on Thursday that YouTube, a platform it owns, had disabled 210 channels on the platform.

It said the reason was the channels’ apparent ties to a coordinated influence operation around the Hong Kong protest movement, but stopped short of naming who was responsible.

A protester holds up a sign in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations at Hong Kong Stadium on July 24, 2019.
ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are all formally banned in China.

However, Google has more activity in China than the other two companies.

It operated in China until 2010, when it pulled out, citing excessive censorship from the government.

Until earlier this year, Google had a secret plan — codenamed Project Dragonfly — to accept a degree of censorship in return for being allowed back in the Chinese market. It also has an AI research division based in China.

Read more: Facebook and Twitter say they’ve detected a Chinese propaganda campaign targeting Hong Kong protesters

Google announced that the Hong Kong disinformation network had been shut down in a Thursday blog post by Shane Huntley, a member of Google’s security team.

The post said that the videos uploaded were about the Hong Kong protest movement — which the Chinese government is running a campaign to discredit.

In the post, Huntley said the activity was “consistent with recent observations and actions related to China announced by Facebook and Twitter.”

However, unlike Twitter and Facebook, Google made no mention of who could be to blame.

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki.
Getty

When Twitter announced its deletion of 936 accounts, it cited its own “reliable evidence” that the disinformation network “is a coordinated state-backed operation” based in China.

Facebook, which detected five accounts, seven pages, and three groups sowing disinformation, said the campaign had “links to individuals associated with the Chinese government.”

Google declined to answer Business Insider’s questions about why it did not say where the activity could have come from.

The account removals appear to be part of a wider movement against state propaganda.

Twitter on Monday also said it would no longer accept advertising from state-controlled news media, while Facebook said it has no plans to change its ad policies, Reuters reported.

Pro-democracy protesters at Hong Kong Airport this summer.
REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Google declined to comment when asked whether YouTube would follow in Twitter’s footsteps.

YouTube currently places disclaimers below its videos noting whether the uploader is part of a state-funded network, including Chinese broadcasters Xinhua, CCTV, and CGTN.

It does not include this disclaimer for the Communist Party-run newspapers People’s Daily, China Daily, and Global Times.

Google declined to comment when asked whether it would expand its labeling for Chinese state media.

A man cleans a sign outside Google’s offices in China before the company left the country in 2010.
Reuters

While it’s not clear why Google isn’t blaming Beijing for the disinformation campaign, the apparent reticence could ignite criticism of the company’s ties to the country.

Peter Thiel, the billionaire Silicon Valley investor and staunch supporter of President Donald Trump, has repeatedly attacked Google on the issue.

He particularly criticized Google for conducting artificial-intelligence research in China while simultaneously refusing to join the US Department of Defense’s AI initiative, known as Project Maven.

President Donald Trump and Peter Thiel, prominent Silicon Valley investor, in the White House. Thiel has called for an investigation into Google’s links with China.
Getty

In a July speech and August op-ed in The New York Times, Thiel — who is a director at Facebook — described Google’s relationship with China as “seemingly treasonous.”

He suggested that the FBI and CIA should investigate the links “in a not excessively gentle manner.”

Trump has promised to look into Thiel’s claims of treason and that Google is working with the Chinese government. It’s not clear if the Trump administration has acted on these calls yet.

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