China uses SEO as a propaganda tool, Claims Study
According to a report, the Chinese government has been found to influence search results on a variety of keywords related topics such as Covid-19 and the treatment for the country’s Uyghurmulsim population.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO), a commonly used tool and discipline, can be used by companies to drive more traffic towards their web pages. Many website builders now offer a wide range of SEO features
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It is rare to see SEO being used for geopolitical purposes. Google’s enormous reach means that it is not surprising that one of the superpowers in the world sees it as an opportunity for information dissemination.
China’s Search Engine Soft Power
The study was performed by the Alliance for Securing Democracy as well the Brookings Institution. It included 120 days of data from Google Search Search Google News Bing Search Bing Search Bing News YouTube.
It centered on search terms relating Covid-19 or the Xinjiang province of China, both points in geopolitical contention of Xi Jinping.
“Beijing is focused on positioning herself as a responsible leader worldwide and softening perceptions in the opposite” – Winning with the web: How Beijing leverages search results for shaping views of Xinjiang/COVID-19
The country has come under fire for its handling of Covid-19’s initial outbreak, before it wreaked havoc all over the world.
According to the report’s authors, the SEO push stems from Beijing’s “intention of positioning itself as an responsible global leader and softening perceptions.”
Beijing-Backed Media Floods Results
For the search term “Xinjiang”, a Chinese state sponsored news publication showed up in the first 10 results of 88% of the searches. It was searched for 106/120 times.
YouTube’s video-sharing platform also revealed that Chinese state agencies were in the top 10 results of 98% search results, this time for 118/120 day searched.
The research team found Google/Bing News and YouTube Search were less likely to deliver state-backed propaganda pieces that Google or Bing Search.
Searches for Fort Detrick, the center of a Chinese conspiracy theory that suggests the Covid-19 pandemic’s epicenter was a US military bases, led to content often backed by Beijing. There were 619 videos from Chinese state media outlets in the top ten search results during our research (or approximately five per hour).
The research team discovered that News Search was more likely to find state-backed propaganda pieces than Google Search or Bing Search.
The researchers discovered that Chinese state media accounted to roughly 22% and 25%, respectively, of the pages and channels that were observed in search results. These topics included Xinjiang and origins of coronavirus.
For comparison, the Google and Bing Search figures were just 6%.
Search Engines: Can they do anything to stop China from exploiting SEO?
It’s complicated. CNET spokeswoman Ned Adriance stated that Google makes every effort to “combat coordinated influences and censorship activities”. Microsoft is also believed to be looking into the results.
There is evidence to support this conclusion. According to the report, China seems to have less ability to influence searches relating to Covid-19. This may be due to Google and other search engines spending a lot time moderating related information.
The report states that China seems less able search results for Covid-19 due to the fact Google and other search engines have spent much time moderating related content.
The report does mention that China’s complex web is full of “content hosting” and “influencer arrangement”, making it hard to tell what is coming from Beijing and what isn’t.
At least 19 different sources were identified by the Alliance for Securing Democracy. “Chinese state media contents verbatim” was republished verbatim from the Alliance for Securing Democracy.
If this is included, it would increase the number state-backed content returned by search results by ten percentage points.
One example is the Helsinki Times. This newspaper has approximately 370,000 monthly subscribers. It started publishing articles directly from China’s People’s Daily between 2020 and 2021 as a way to fight ‘Western Bias’.
SEO: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
SEO is a crucial concept for businesses. Most of the websites that review or sell products have full-time SEO staff that ensure high quality content rises up the Google rankings.
SEO is so important nowadays, even the cheapest website builder will offer SEO tools as part of their plans.
As with most useful things it can be misused for insidious purposes. For example, Negative (or Blackhat SEO) is the deliberate effort to drive competitor sites down the rankings using malicious techniques.
One is scraping all content on competitor websites and placing it on another website.
These cases of China using search-engine optimization techniques to influence Western public perceptions may be just the tip.
Such content could be allowed to slide through search engine moderation software, making it an effective geopolitical tool to help governments shape the views and opinions of the masses for many years to come.