China manipulates search engines to push propaganda about COVID and Uyghur Muslims

What is happening

Chinese state-run media are using search engine optimization strategies to place stories about the country at the top of search results pages outside of China, according to a new report.

why is it important

This strategy is part of China’s strategy to influence opinion outside the country.

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China exploits the functioning of search engines to influence public opinion outside the country by placing state-published articles on the detention of Uyghur Muslims and the origins of the coronavirus at the top of searches on Google, YouTube and Bing.

In a report released Friday, researchers from the Brookings Institution and the Alliance for Securing Democracy found that Chinese sources consistently topped search results for “Xinjiang,” a part of western China made up of the Uyghur minority.

When Brookings compiled daily data for 120 days, 12 Xinjiang-related terms returned state-backed content in the top 10 results in 88% of searches on Google Search and News, Bing Search and News and YouTube. Some of this content has whitewashed China’s forced assimilation of Uyghurs, which the US State Department has called crimes against humanity.

Searches from Fort Detrick, a military base in Maryland that was at the center of the United States’ biological weapons program from the early 1940s to the late 1960s, return a high volume of Chinese propaganda that promotes conspiracy narratives that the facility is the actual source of the coronavirus outbreak, according to the report. On YouTube, according to the report, searches for Fort Detrick “regularly returned state-backed content, with 619 sightings of Chinese state media videos appearing in the top 10.”

Google search and YouTube are banned in China. Microsoft’s Bing operates in China but is suspending certain elements of the service to comply with the country’s laws.

China’s search engine strategy indicates that it is willing to use Western tools to influence audiences outside the country. The report said the tactic dovetails with the harsh language of Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomats, who use blunt language to advance the country’s talking points. China’s search tactics aim to “assert narrative dominance” through “external propaganda aimed at foreign audiences,” according to the report.

“The problem is that China’s state media, which is not really subject to resource constraints or public comment, can produce a large volume of propaganda about a conspiracy they want to promote,” said Jessica Brandt, researcher at Brookings who studies authoritarian governments. and Internet. The high volume of material makes it easier for Chinese publishers to leverage how search works to promote new content, Brandt said.

Ned Adriance, head of political communications at Google, said the search giant was trying to “combat coordinated influence and censorship operations” while balancing free speech. Some search queries used in the study were less common terms, which may explain why Chinese state sources were among the top results, Google said.

Microsoft, which recently bug fix which has applied some Chinese political censorship to research in North America, said it was reviewing the report.

Rosemary S. Bishop