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China promotes propaganda in search engine results

Users looking for information on Xinjiang or Covid see articles published by Chinese state media.

New Delhi: A recent study by the Washington-based Brookings Institution found that China manipulates search engine results to spread propaganda and block negative information related to the country from appearing in search results.
The study titled “How China Uses Search Engines to Spread Propaganda” indicates that China used search engines as a crucial tool in its information warfare. The study, conducted over a four-month period, found that China significantly leverages search engine results on two topics, “Xinjiang” and “Covid 19,” topics its political leaders are highly sensitive to.
According to Brookings researchers – who focused on five different sources Google Search, Google News, Bing Search, Bing News and YouTube – users who would use any of these mediums to search for information related to Xinjiang or originally of the Covid pandemic, were likely to “stumble upon articles on these topics published by Chinese state media”.
To assess the prevalence of content created by Chinese state media that appears in search results, the researchers developed a list of 12 key terms related to “Xinjiang” and “Covid-19” and then tracked the measurement in which these terms returned search results. organized by Chinese state media.
The result was analyzed for the period between November 1, 2021 and February 8, 2022. During these 120 days, approximately 21.5% of engine results for terms related to Xinjiang and Covid-19 showed content from Chinese state media. A quarter of the top results on YouTube were also from Chinese state-backed accounts.
“For users looking to learn about events in Xinjiang or Covid-19, this meant it was likely that at least some of the information they were consuming would come from Chinese state media.
By highlighting this type of content, search engines can play a key role in Beijing’s efforts to shape external perceptions, making it crucial that platforms – as well as authoritative outlets that carry content state-supported content without clear labeling – do more to fulfill their role. in the dissemination of these narratives,” the researchers noted.
According to them, Beijing has exploited search engine results to deliver state-backed media outlets that amplify Chinese Communist Party propaganda. The researchers found that even benign and neutral terms for a search query made Chinese state media appear prominently.
“Beijing has been remarkably effective in influencing content that surfaces for the neutral and widely used term ‘Xinjiang.’ Over the 120-day period, the term returned Chinese state media in the top results in 88% of news searches and 98% of YouTube searches. These results show how easy it is for users to stumble upon state-backed content, even when performing a seemingly neutral search. »
Even search results for conspiratorial terms generated a high volume of state-based content. Terms such as “Xinjiang debunked” and “Xinjiang terrorism” returned at least one result on the front page of Chinese state media on the web, news and YouTube searches almost daily.
“On average, more than half of all search results for the term ‘Xinjiang debunked’ and a third of all search results for the term ‘Xinjiang terrorism’ come from Chinese state media every day. In each of these cases, search results were dominated by state-sponsored propaganda that regularly provided content referencing these loaded search terms,” the researchers found.
The Chinese agencies behind the manipulation of this content have not limited themselves to “defensive actions”, but have managed to control the dissemination of content that harms their strategic competitors such as the United States. “YouTube searches for the term ‘Fort Detrick’, a US military research lab that the CCP propaganda claims was the source of the Covid-19 virus, routinely returned state-sponsored content. A total of 619 videos from Chinese state media appeared in the top 10 results. Similarly, Chinese state media appeared on the first page of search results for news searches for the term “Unit 731″ – a biological research unit located in Japanese-occupied China during World War II. world and a subplot in China’s efforts to link the origins of Covid-19 to Fort Detrick – every day of data collection,” the report said.
Brookings Institution experts have suggested that to counter this propaganda war, search platforms should give users more information about search results, including clear labels for state domains.
Search engines could extend the use of warning labels to situations where the quality of results may be lacking, including, for example, when a small number of sources dominate search results. To address the inherent challenges to state-sponsored media hosting, remailing and syndication, publications that engage in these practices should at a minimum improve disclosures and labels to better inform the public about the sources of such syndicated information. authoritative media should also reconsider arrangements with state-backed media that lack editorial independence.Search engines should expand the practice of tagging the websites of state media, agencies and officials in search results, which provide important context to users,” the report recommends.
“Notify users when the quality of results is suspect, as Google has done for news events, including searches for disputed 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.