How Chinese government successfully controlled Google, Bing, and YouTube search results in disinformation campaigns

Although the  Chinese government has resisted openly expressing its support for Russia and its decision to invade Ukraine, Beijing state media appears to have found a way to support Vladimir Putin’s speech. For a couple of months now, special operations groups in China have promoted Russia’s actions online, deploying complex disinformation and discrediting campaigns from organizations such as the U.S. government, NATO, and the United Nations.

This momentum has been instrumental in validating Putin’s position to millions of people, as Russian state media has ceased to operate in the West. In addition, Chinese state media no longer rely solely on social media platforms for operations like this, as they seem to have found a more efficient way to distribute their messages using Internet search results.

These practices are not new, although they seem to remain effective in China without search engines having done anything to prevent them. According to a Brookings report, China has been able to alter the results of consultations such as ‘Xinjiang’ or ‘COVID-19’ online, two issues of concern for the Communist Party, which seeks to reduce discussion about its questionable human rights record and its abysmal decisions in addressing the early phases of the pandemic.

For 120 consecutive days, the Brookings team compiled information about queries for these terms in sources such as Google Search, Google News, Bing Search, Bing News, and YouTube, making interesting findings.

Search results pollution

The report notes that, over the days, the terms analyzed showed progressively more content sponsored by the Chinese state. Specifically, state propaganda had already hoarded the first 10 results for ‘Xinjiang’ and ‘COVID-19’ by the last few days of the analysis.

Another interesting finding is that Chinese state media has also resorted to conspiracy theories, generating a lot of sensationalist content to appear in search results before validated information. The Brookings report cites as an example the large volume of content related to Fort Detrick, a former military base in the U.S. that housed a biological weapons program, which the Chinese government has linked to false theories about the origin of the coronavirus.

Finally, when searching for pandemic-related terms on news and video platforms, you are much more likely to find content created by Chinese media, notably influencing the distribution of information.

Web browsers can take some steps to address these issues, including analyzing hosting practices, content forwarding, and syndication, as well as boosting the practice of tagging online platforms operated by state media, which can give users a clearer idea of the intent with which content on the Internet was crafted.

Feel free to access the International Institute of Cyber Security (IICS) websites to learn more about information security risks, malware variants, vulnerabilities, and information technologies.