YouTube has confirmed that it has banned thousands (2,596) of Chinese accounts that were engaging in “coordinated influence operation campaigns” from April to June in a report published yesterday. This number has risen by 937% from the 277 incidences reported from January to February, showing that either China is ramping up its misinformation efforts or the video platform is stepping up its efforts to fight it.
YouTube was aided by Graphika, who published a report on the scale of Chinese misinformation social media and what tactics were being used.
It has been known for some time that foreign governments have been using social media platforms to influence foreign elections and to manipulate people's beliefs about subjects. The Chinese government in particular often attempts to spread disinformation designed to challenge popular narratives, such as the Tiananmen Square protests, for example, in order to paint the Communist Party in a better light.
In June, Twitter revealed that tens of thousands of fake accounts had been created in China in order to spread disinformation and pro-Chinese propaganda relating to COVID-19 and China’s response to the outbreak. At the time, Twitter revealed it had deleted around 150,000 accounts believed to be engaging in a coordinated disinformation campaign.
While there have been growing calls for online platforms to do more to crack down on this kind of coordinated disinformation, it is important to consider the risk of legitimate debate around contentious or controversial topics also being suppressed.
Whenever the takedowns occur, it is important that there is a strong level of oversight to ensure that any content being removed is genuinely harmful. The chances that Google could be influenced by the U.S. government in order to take down content it doesn’t agree with is concerning, and it is important to consider who gets to decide what is taken down and why.
The growing tensions in the trade war between China and the U.S. relies on misinformation on both sides of the equation, and with Trump known to help spread disinformation of his own, it is vital for watchdogs to carefully monitor any increase in censorship that could ultimately harm society.
That said, China is known to employ an army of online spammers whose job it is to help spread disinformation and seed confusion and doubt online. With that in mind, it seems clear that there is some legitimate interest in seeking out and preventing the abuse of social media platforms.
Whenever misinformation is potentially dangerous to people’s health, it is in the public interest to ensure that the content is dealt with swiftly. For this reason, it is important to create an open and transparent dialogue regarding the best policy for dealing with any potentially dangerous coordinated disinformation campaigns.