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China Exploits Search Engine Results to Shape Views of Xinjiang and COVID-19, Brookings Study Finds

June 13th, 2022 15:22

The Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion, a US think tank, report­ed last month that Chi­na is exploit­ing var­i­ous search results to shape views on Xin­jiang and COVID-19, two sub­jects that are geopo­lit­i­cal­ly salient to Bei­jing. The Brook­ings study found that Chi­nese state media are espe­cial­ly effec­tive at influ­enc­ing the con­tent returned for the term “Xin­jiang,” with at least one Chi­nese state-backed news out­let appear­ing in the top 10 results in 88% of search­es. Accord­ing to the Brook­ings study:

May 2022 For months, our team has been track­ing how Chi­na has exploit­ed search engine results on Xin­jiang and COVID-19, two sub­jects that are geopo­lit­i­cal­ly salient to Bei­jing — Xin­jiang, because the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment seeks to push back on con­dem­na­tion of its rights record; COVID-19, because it seeks to deflect crit­i­cism for its ear­ly mis­han­dling of the pan­dem­ic. In both cas­es, Bei­jing is quite focused on posi­tion­ing itself as a respon­si­ble glob­al leader and soft­en­ing per­cep­tions to the con­trary. […] We found that: Chi­nese state media are remark­ably effec­tive at influ­enc­ing the con­tent returned for the term “Xin­jiang” across sev­er­al search types. “Xin­jiang,” which is among the most neu­tral terms in our data set, reg­u­lar­ly returned state-backed con­tent across news search­es, with at least one Chi­nese state-backed news out­let appear­ing in the top 10 results in 88% of search­es (106 out of 120 days searched). On YouTube, state media appeared among the top 10 results in search­es for “Xin­jiang” in 98% of search­es (118 out of 120 days searched). Con­sis­tent with past research, search results for con­spir­a­to­r­i­al terms across all search types yield­ed a high vol­ume of state- dri­ven con­tent. Take, for exam­ple, the term “Fort Det­rick” — a mil­i­tary base in Mary­land that housed the Unit­ed States’ bio­log­i­cal weapons pro­gram from 1943 to 1969 and has become a cen­tral fig­ure in China’s efforts to spread dis­in­for­ma­tion about the ori­gins of the coro­n­avirus out­break. On YouTube, search­es for “Fort Det­rick’’ reg­u­lar­ly returned state-backed con­tent, with 619 obser­va­tions of videos from Chi­nese state media out­lets appear­ing in the top 10 search results dur­ing our study (or around five per day). Sim­i­lar­ly, “Unit 731,” a bio­log­i­cal and chem­i­cal weapons research unit locat­ed in Japan- occu­pied Chi­na dur­ing World War II and a sub­plot in China’s efforts to con­nect the ori­gins of the coro­n­avirus out­break to Fort Det­rick, appeared on the first page of search results for news search­es every sin­gle day of data collection.

Read the full report here.

The Brook­ings report pro­pos­es the fol­low­ing rec­om­men­da­tions to com­pa­nies, con­tent cre­ators, and author­i­ta­tive outlets:

  • Address host­ing, repost­ing, and syn­di­ca­tion, rec­og­niz­ing that agree­ments between inter­na­tion­al news out­lets and Chi­nese state media are a sig­nif­i­cant avenue for the pro­lif­er­a­tion of Beijing’s nar­ra­tives, includ­ing mis­lead­ing and con­spir­a­to­r­i­al con­tent. Poten­tial reme­dies include clear labels and links to the orig­i­nal source.
  • Expand the prac­tice of label­ing the web­sites of state media, agen­cies, and offi­cials in search results, which pro­vides impor­tant con­text to users.
  • Pro­vide notice to users when result qual­i­ty is sus­pect, as Google has done for break­ing news events, includ­ing for search­es for con­test­ed terms or top­ics that are a bat­tle­ground for search result dominance.
  • Pro­vide infor­ma­tion on how rank­ing deci­sions regard­ing state con­tent are assessed and made — includ­ing whether fac­tors that lead to der­ank­ing (as in the case of Russ­ian state media and Google) may have impli­ca­tions for con­tent pro­duced by oth­er states.  Con­tribute to pub­lic edu­ca­tion about how engines find, rank, and sur­face con­tent. User trust in engines like Google remains high, but there is lit­tle evi­dence that users have a strong under­stand­ing of the fac­tors that deter­mine results.
  • Col­lab­o­rate and share infor­ma­tion with oth­er search engines, as they have in the past, to improve the per­for­mance of their tech­nolo­gies. The goal should not nec­es­sar­i­ly be the for­ma­tion of a new insti­tu­tion or mech­a­nism, but rather infor­ma­tion exchange on how to address com­mon vulnerabilities.
  • Con­tent cre­ators who cov­er issues relat­ed to or of impor­tance to Bei­jing — includ­ing research orga­ni­za­tions, gov­ern­ment offi­cials, and activists — should devel­op an under­stand­ing of how audi­ences are search­ing for their sto­ries and main­tain aware­ness of efforts to sub­vert them. Con­sid­er­ing audi­ence behav­ior when tag­ging, using key­words, and devel­op­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion strate­gies can con­tribute to coun­ter­ing mis­lead­ing stories.
  • Author­i­ta­tive out­lets should recon­sid­er syn­di­ca­tion agree­ments with state media that do not have appro­pri­ate con­trols to ensure edi­to­r­i­al inde­pen­dence. At a min­i­mum, they should enhance dis­clo­sure and labels to bet­ter inform audiences.

Past Glob­al Influ­ence Oper­a­tions Report cov­er­age of China’s exploita­tion of search results has included:

  • In Feb­ru­ary, we report­ed that YouTube’s search results for the Bei­jing Win­ter Olympics are dom­i­nat­ed by both pro-Chi­na and anti-Chi­na pro­pa­gan­da videos and disinformation.
  • In Novem­ber, we report­ed that Chi­na increased the reach of its influ­ence oper­a­tions, sur­pass­ing even the Kremlin’s malign activ­i­ties, with impor­tant impli­ca­tions for glob­al search results, mobile phone users world­wide, and domes­tic pol­i­tics in the Unit­ed States and elsewhere.
  • In Octo­ber, we report­ed that Chi­na exploit­ed search engines to push con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries about the ori­gins of Covid-19.