Written by Suzanne Smalley
A think tank says Chinese state media has proven very effective in influencing search engine results for users seeking information about Xinjiang, a region of China where the Uyghur ethnic minority has been subjugated. to what the State Department calls genocide.
Discoveries about Chinese manipulation of major US search engines came via scholars from the Brookings Institution on Friday, on the heels of the BBC’s broadcast of disturbing images of Uyghur detainees accompanied by documents detailing a Chinese policy of shooting to kill inmates trying to escape.
Brookings also studied search engine results for Chinese state propaganda relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, a topic Beijing has been keen to control due to widespread condemnation of its botched early response to the COVID-19 pandemic. crisis. Chinese propaganda has called the State Department’s genocide claims the ‘lie of the century’ and suggested that the US is responsible for the pandemic because of activities at Fort Detrick, a military base that hosted the US program of biological weapons until 1969.
The research team compiled daily data over a period of 120 days on 12 terms related to Xinjiang and COVID-19 from five different sources: Google Search; Google News; Bing search; Bing News; and YouTube, owned by Google.
At least one state-backed Chinese outlet appeared in the top 10 results in 88% of searches, the researchers found. On YouTube, state media came up even more often, appearing in 98% of searches.
A Bing spokesperson made a statement that the company is “always looking for ways to learn and improve and review the detailed findings of this report.” Google also released a statement, saying it is “actively working to combat coordinated influence and censorship operations while protecting access to information and freedom of expression online.” The statement says third-party research shows Google Search “consistently returns high-quality results, especially when compared to other search engines.”
Disinformation scholars called Brookings’ research important because it focuses on search engines returning propaganda, which has historically been an understudied part of the disinformation landscape compared to larger threats such as bots and fake Twitter accounts.
The research highlights how vital it is for Google and Microsoft to do more to avoid spreading propaganda in part by becoming more transparent about how their algorithms work, according to Justin Sherman, disinformation specialist at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative. Search engines should consider applying downgrade policies that are currently used to limit Russian state content to Chinese content, Sherman said.
Chinese state-backed media have a wide circulation and are even available in print in major cities like New York, making it harder to downplay their prominence in news search results, he said. declared.
“It’s no surprise that the Chinese government is getting better and better at promoting its narrative through Western search engines,” Sherman said. “We often think about how authoritarian regimes and other malicious actors spread propaganda and misinformation through social media platforms – and less about how they use search engines, web hosting and other parts of the Internet ecosystem to achieve their goals.”
Other disinformation experts said they were surprised at the extent to which Chinese state media are infiltrating Google and Microsoft search engines.
The Chinese state propaganda that appears so consistently in the top 10 search results for Google and Bing is unexpected in part because of the perception that China and the West rely on “two separate internets”, said Adam Segal, director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy program. at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Segal said that because China has historically focused on spreading propaganda to its domestic audience, he was struck by Beijing’s apparent success in manipulating Google and Microsoft’s algorithms to reach Western audiences.
The Brookings researchers – who teamed up with researchers from the German Marshall Fund’s Securing Democracy Alliance – found that search results for what they called “conspiratorial terms” in all types of research produced a high volume of Chinese propaganda.
For example, a search for “Fort Detrick” – a military base in Maryland that has featured prominently in China’s efforts to spread misinformation about the origins of the coronavirus outbreak – yielded 619 video sightings of Chinese state media appearing in the top 10 search results on YouTube during the four-month study.
Jessica Brandt, the Brookings researcher who led the search, said she was struck by the extent of Chinese propaganda in the search results.
“This means that users who come looking for neutral information can easily stumble upon propaganda,” Brandt said. “A helpful intervention here might just be better labeling of state news sources in search results.”
Brandt said the pervasiveness of Chinese propaganda is a bigger problem in Google News searches than general Google searches, which she says is not surprising since Google News is more narrowly targeted while searches Google relate to the entire Internet.
“The phenomenon we’re seeing here is that search engines are working the way they’re designed to – they’re supposed to show the latest, freshest, and most relevant news articles,” Brandt said. “But The New York Times or other credible, authoritative, independent sources will debunk a conspiracy theory like the Fort Detrick Plot once and they’ll move on. And Beijing’s propaganda apparatus doesn’t need to move forward — it can produce a vast array of content that hammers home that theory over and over and over again.
Updated on 05/31/22: To include a statement from Google.