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.