A think tank study says Chinese state media have proven very effective at influencing search engine results for users seeking information on Xinjiang, a region of China where the Uyghur ethnic minority has been subjected to what the State Department calls genocide.
The findings on the Chinese manipulation of prominent American search engines came via Brookings Institution and German Marshall Fund Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD) scholars Friday, following on the heels of the BBC’s release of disturbing images of Uyghur detainees accompanied by documents detailing a Chinese shoot-to-kill policy for detainees who try to escape.
Brookings and ASD also studied search engine results for Chinese state propaganda relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, a topic that Beijing has proven eager to control due to widespread condemnation of its botched early response to the crisis. The Chinese propaganda called the State Department’s genocide allegations the “lie of the century” and suggested the U.S. is to blame for the pandemic due to activities at Fort Detrick, a military base which hosted the American biological weapons program until 1969.
The research team compiled daily data over a 120-day period on 12 terms related to Xinjiang and COVID-19 from five different sources: Google Search; Google News; Bing Search; Bing News; and YouTube, which Google owns.
At least one Chinese state-backed news outlet appeared in the top 10 results in 88% of news searches, the researchers found. On YouTube, state media appeared even more often, showing up in 98% of searches.
A Bing spokesperson provided a statement which said the company is “always looking for ways to learn and improve and are reviewing the detailed findings in this report.” Google also issued a statement, saying that it “actively works to combat coordinated influence and censorship operations while also protecting access to information and free expression online.” The statement said that third party research shows Google Search “consistently returns high quality results, especially compared to other search engines.”
Disinformation scholars called the Brookings and ASD research important because it focuses on search engines returning propaganda, which has historically been an understudied element of the disinformation landscape compared to more prominent threats such as bots and forged Twitter accounts.
The research underscores how vital it is for Google and Microsoft to do more to avoid disseminating propaganda in part by becoming more transparent about how their algorithms work, according to Justin Sherman, a disinformation scholar at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative. The search engines should consider applying the de-ranking policies which are currently used to limit Russian state content to Chinese content, Sherman said.
Chinese state-backed media outlets have wide circulation and are even available in print in major cities like New York, making it more difficult to curtail their prominence in news search results, he said.
“It is not surprising 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 bad actors spread propaganda and disinformation 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 by the degree to which Chinese state media is infiltrating Google and Microsoft search engines.
Chinese state propaganda surfacing 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, the director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Segal said that because China has historically focused on disseminating propaganda to its domestic audience, he was struck by Beijing’s apparent success at manipulating Google and Microsoft algorithms to reach a Western audience.
The Brookings and ASD researchers found that search results for what they called “conspiratorial terms” across all search types yielded a high volume of Chinese propaganda.
For example, a search for “Fort Detrick” — a military base in Maryland that has figured prominently in China’s efforts to spread disinformation about the origins of the coronavirus outbreak — yielded 619 observations of videos from Chinese state media outlets appearing in top 10 search results on YouTube during the four-month-long study.
China has long leveraged Fort Detrick’s history as a former biological weapons research center in its propaganda, a tendency which former National Security Council and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace disinformation expert Gavin Wilde said China has effectively weaponized.
“Ultimately the resilience of the ‘bio-labs’ conspiracy theory — long fueled by Moscow and now amplified by Beijing — distorts a US nonproliferation policy from three decades ago,” Wilde said by text message. “It speaks not only to the cynicism of propaganda, but to the need for US policymakers to consider how today’s grand policy initiatives might be weaponized down the road, and ensure sufficient informational accompaniment to close off those avenues by actors that are far more sophisticated than those we contended with in the early ’90s.”
Jessica Brandt, the Brookings scholar who co-authored the research, said she was struck by how extensively Chinese propaganda appeared in search results.
“What that means is that users who are coming to search for neutral information can easily stumble upon propaganda,” Brandt said. “One useful intervention here could be just better labeling of state news sources in search results.”
Brandt said the pervasiveness of Chinese propaganda is a bigger issue in Google News searches than general Google searches, which she said is unsurprising since Google News is more tightly focused whereas Google searches are for the whole internet.
“The phenomenon that we’re catching here is that search engines are working as they’re designed to — they’re supposed to surface the most fresh, recent, relevant news articles,” Brandt said. “But The New York Times or other credible, authoritative, independent sources are going to debunk a conspiracy theory like the Fort Detrick conspiracy once and they’re going to move on. And Beijing’s propaganda apparatus does not need to move on — they can churn out a vast array of content that hammers this theory over and over and over again.”
Updated 5/31/22: to include a statement from Google.
Updated 6/1/22: to include a statement from Wilde.
Clarified 6/1/22: to emphasize the Alliance for Securing Democracy as the Brookings Institution’s partner on the research.