The Chinese government is influencing search results for a number of keywords related to topics including Covid-19 and the treatment of the country’s Muslim Uyghur population, a new report has concluded.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a common tool – and a professional discipline – that businesses use to drive more traffic to their web pages, with many website builders now offering long lists of SEO features.
It is not common to see SEO used for geopolitical purposes. Given Google’s reach, however, it’s no surprise that one of the world’s superpowers saw it as an opportunity to spread information.
The soft power of the Chinese search engine
The studyconducted by the Brookings Institution and the Alliance for Securing Democracy, compiled 120 days of data from Google Search, Google News, Bing Search, Bing News and YouTube.
He focused on search terms related to Covid-19 and China’s Xinjiang region, two geopolitical points of contention for Xi Jinping’s party.
“Beijing is fully focused on positioning itself as a responsible global leader and softening perceptions to the contrary” – Winning the Web: How Beijing is Harnessing Search Results to Shape Views of Xinjiang and COVID-19.
The country has been criticized for mishandling the initial Covid-19 outbreak before it wreaked havoc across the world, as well as committing a catalog of human rights abuses – as well as genocide – against the local Uyghur Muslim population in the Xinjiang region.
The SEO push, the report says, is rooted in Beijing’s “focus on positioning itself as a responsible global leader and softening perceptions to the contrary.”
Beijing-backed media flood results
For the word “Xinjiang,” a Chinese state-backed news publication appeared in the top 10 results in 88% of searches – out of 106/120 days it was searched.
Similarly, on video-sharing platform YouTube, Chinese state media was found among the top 10 results in 98% of searches, this time over 118/120 search days.
The research team found that Google/Bing News and YouTube Search were more likely to return state-sponsored propaganda articles than Google or Bing Search.
Searches for “Fort Detrick” – the center of a conspiracy theory promoted by China that suggests the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic was actually a US military base – has often led to content backed by Beijing-backed sites, with “619 sightings of Chinese state media videos appearing in the top 10 search results during our study (or about five per day).
Interestingly, the research team found that News and YouTube Search were more likely to return state-sponsored propaganda articles than Google or Bing Search.
“Chinese state-run media accounted for about 22% of observed pages and 25% of observed channels in search results for Xinjiang-related and coronavirus-related origins respondents in news and YouTube searches, respectively,” revealed the researchers.
The figure for Google and Bing Search, for comparison, was just 6%.
Can search engines do anything to prevent China from exploiting SEO?
It is complicated. Google spokesperson Ned Adriance said CBS that the search giant is working to “fight against coordinated influence and censorship operations”. Microsoft is also reportedly reviewing the study’s findings.
There is evidence that this is also the case – the report notes that China appears less able to impact Covid-19 related searches, likely due to the fact that search engines like Google have passed lots of time moderating related content.
The report notes that China appears less able to impact Covid-19-related searches, likely due to the fact that search engines like Google have spent a lot of time moderating related content.
But the report also comments that due to China’s complex network of “content hosting and influencer arrangement” it is difficult to determine exactly what is from Beijing and what is not. not.
At least 19 different sources identified by the Brookings Institution and the Alliance for Securing Democracy verbatim republished “Chinese state media content.”
If included, this would increase the amount of state-supported content returned in search results by 10 percentage points.
An interesting example is the Helsinki Times, which has around 370,000 monthly readers. He started publishing articles directly provided by People’s Daily (China’s largest newspaper) in 2020 and 2021, in an alleged attempt to fight “Western bias”.
SEO: the good, the bad and the ugly
SEO is an extremely important concept for business – most websites you visit that sell or review products will have full-time SEO employees who ensure that the quality content produced by their website rises to the top of the rankings. Google.
SEO is so important these days that even the cheapest website builders will offer SEO tools on their plans.
But, like most useful things, it can be used for insidious purposes, such as negative SEO (or “Blackhat”) – the practice of deliberately trying to push competing sites down the rankings via tactics malicious.
One, for example, would be to remove all content from your competitor’s website and republish it on another domain.
These instances of China using search engine optimization techniques to sway Western public opinion are perhaps just the tip of the iceberg.
If search engine moderation technology consistently lets this content onto the net, it could provide a powerful geopolitical tool for governments to shape the opinions of the masses for years to come.