As the war in Ukraine unfolds, Russian propaganda about the conflict has received a boost from a friendly source: government officials and state media outside Beijing. In multiple languages and regions around the world, Chinese diplomats and “wolf warrior” state media routinely amplify Kremlin conspiracy theories rationalizing President Vladimir Putin’s invasion and undermining US credibility and appeal. NATO and the independent media – even as China declines to endorse the wholesale adventurism of the Kremlin. This spring, for example, messengers from China promoted Russia’s baseless claim that the United States supports a biological weapons program in Ukraine – sometimes more aggressively than Russia itself.
Because Russian state media has been de-amplified or banned by several Western social media platforms, messages from Beijing could play an outsized role in conveying the Kremlin’s talking points to audiences around the world.
These stories aren’t just spreading on social media. Beijing’s state-funded publishers have considerable success in an area that has received relatively little attention: search results.
For months, our team has tracked how China has exploited search engine results on Xinjiang and COVID-19, two topics that are geopolitically salient for Beijing – Xinjiang, as the Chinese government seeks to push back against condemnation of its rights record; COVID-19, as it seeks to deflect criticism for its early mishandling of the pandemic. Either way, Beijing is focused on positioning itself as a responsible global leader and softening perceptions to the contrary.
To assess these concerns, we compiled daily data over a 120-day period on 12 terms related to Xinjiang and COVID-19 from five different sources: (1) Google Search; (2) Google News; (3) Bing search; (4) Bing News; and (5) YouTube.
We found that:
- Chinese state media is remarkably effective at influencing the content returned for the term “Xinjiang” in several types of searches. “Xinjiang,” which is among the most neutral terms in our dataset, consistently returned state-backed content in news searches, with at least one Chinese state-backed news outlet appearing in the top 10 first results in 88% of searches (106 out of 120 days searched). On YouTube, state media was among the top 10 results in searches for “Xinjiang” in 98 percent of searches (118 out of 120 days).
- Consistent with previous research, search results for conspiratorial terms across all search types yielded a high volume of state-based content. Take, for example, the term “Fort Detrick” – a military base in Maryland that housed the US biological weapons program from 1943 to 1969 and became a central figure in China’s efforts to spread disinformation. on the origins of the coronavirus epidemic. On YouTube, searches for “Fort Detrick” consistently returned state-backed content, with 619 sightings of Chinese state media videos appearing in the top 10 search results during our study (or about five per day). Similarly, “Unit 731”, a biological and chemical weapons research unit located in Japanese-occupied China during World War II and a subplot in China’s efforts to connect the origins of the coronavirus outbreak in Fort Detrick, appeared on the first page of search results for news searches every data collection day.
- News search (Google News and Bing News) and YouTube search are much more likely to find Chinese state media than web search. Chinese state media accounted for about 22% of observed pages and 25% of observed channels in search results for topics related to Xinjiang and the origins of the coronavirus in news and YouTube searches, respectively. In comparison, Chinese state media accounted for just 6% of results for the same subjects polled on Google and Bing web search.
- Pandemic-related terms were less likely to return state-backed content than Xinjiang-related terms, likely due to the considerable attention platforms have paid to moderating COVID-19 content.
- Due to the many content hosting and influencer deals in China, our research likely underestimates the prevalence and prominence of Chinese state media in search results, given the difficulties in identifying this. content republished from apparently independent sources. In our dataset, at least 19 different sources that are not officially affiliated with the Chinese government but regularly republish Chinese state media textual content (e.g. Helsinki Times) appeared in the top search results. Including observations from just these 19 sources would increase the total number of hits in Chinese state media in search results by almost 10%.
To respond to these observations, we offer companies:
- Address Hosting, Reposting and Syndication, recognizing that agreements between international media and Chinese state media are an important avenue for the proliferation of Beijing narratives, including misleading and conspiratorial content. Potential remedies include clear labels and links to the original source.
- Expand the practice of tagging state media, agency, and official websites in search results, which provides important context to users.
- Notify users when the quality of results is suspect, like Google has done for news events, including 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 the factors that lead to downgrading (as in the case of Russian state media and Google) may have implications for content produced by other states.
- Help educate audiences about how engines find, rank, and present content. User confidence in search engines like Google remains high, but there is little evidence that users have a good understanding of the factors that determine results.
- Collaborate and share information with other search engines, as they have done in the past, to improve the performance of their technologies. The objective should not necessarily be the formation of a new institution or mechanism, but rather the exchange of information on how to deal with common vulnerabilities.
Other actors may also play a role. Especially:
- Content creators who cover issues related to or important to Beijing — including research organizations, government officials and activists — need to develop an understanding of how audiences seek out their stories and stay aware of efforts to subvert them. Considering audience behavior when tagging, using keywords, and developing communication strategies can help counter misleading stories.
- Authoritative media should reconsider syndication agreements with state media that lack appropriate controls to ensure editorial independence. At a minimum, they should improve disclosure and labels to better inform the public.
By taking these steps, companies, content creators and authoritative media can ensure that Beijing is not able to dominate search results for terms related to its geopolitical interests, and that users have the information they need to contextualize the propaganda they encounter.