Google search engines’ results are boosting China’s preferred narratives about COVID-19’s origins and human rights abuses, according to a new study from the Brookings Institution and the Alliance for Securing Democracy.
The study found Google News and YouTube were far more likely to spread Chinese state-run media than Google’s main search engine in response to queries about COVID-19 and Xinjiang, a northwestern province in China and the location of alleged human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities.
“The Chinese government commands a robust communication machine, including traditional global media outlets available in dozens of languages, China’s so-called ‘wolf warrior’ diplomats, pro-government trolls, and paid social media influencers,” the report said. “This multilayered system allows China to shape and control narratives both overtly and covertly, reinforcing and legitimizing China’s strategic messaging. Once largely defensive and designed to insulate China from supposed information threats from abroad, China’s efforts to assert narrative dominance have increasingly been waged through external propaganda aimed at foreign audiences.”
The study’s authors gathered daily data over 120 days ending in February 2022 on search terms related to COVID-19 and Xinjiang from services including Google News and Search, Microsoft-owned Bing and Bing News, and Google-owned YouTube.
Chinese state-sponsored content featured in top search results “across the board” regarding the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, with more than 21% of results coming from state-run sources.
Search results about COVID-19 were less likely to display state-run media than queries about Xinjiang, which the study’s authors attributed to the abundance of content on the coronavirus from other sources including from the private and public sectors.
The news-focused search products of Google and Microsoft-owned Bing, however, more frequently produced results elevating Chinese state-run media than their main search engines.
“Chinese state media accounted for roughly 22% of the observed pages and 25% of observed channels in search results for queried topics related to Xinjiang and the origins of the coronavirus on news and YouTube searches, respectively,” the report said. “By comparison, Chinese state media accounted for only 6% of results for the same queried topics on Google and Bing web search.”
Google said it works to fight coordinated influence and censorship operations online while seeking to maintain access to information as it indexes hundreds of billions of web pages.
“Third-party research shows that Google Search consistently returns high-quality results, especially compared to other search engines,” the company said in a statement. “As the report notes, we have implemented many product solutions that help people easily evaluate the information and sources they find. We also provide clear information panels on YouTube to give viewers context that a news publisher is government-funded.”
Despite Google’s elevation of China’s state-run content, the study’s authors said they were unable to determine if the state-run outlets were manipulating search engine vulnerabilities to dominate the results or whether the search engines’ were responding to an overwhelming volume of content and its recency.
“While this report has not established that Chinese state media make deliberate efforts to capture strategic search terms, the consequences for audiences are largely unchanged,” the report said. “Propaganda and state narratives, by design, are imbued with political intent. Even if prominence among search results is an unintentional consequence of state domains’ resource advantage and strategic use of language, the negative impact on the integrity of search environments remains.”
Microsoft did not immediately respond to requests for comment.