Study: Chinese Propaganda Dominates American Search Engines

Have you ever been shocked by search engine results? Sometimes it seems like every article on the first 3 pages has the same opinion. That might not be an accident.

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.”

2 thoughts on “Study: Chinese Propaganda Dominates American Search Engines”

  1. So what is a better search engine? The Chinks are in cahoots with brabdon so we know you get biased results that favor the senile old twit, but what other search engine is there,,,,

    Just up front, though I look mostly for things like specialty welding alloys or solid carbide end mills, but I would love to not use Google at all if there was someplace else.

    1. I use duckduckgo as a search engine and firefox as a browser. I only have a throw away account at google for questionable websites that ask for an email address. Both those sources say they don’t collect and distribute data (but who trusts anyone. Google says the same.)

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