China claims to use SEO as a propaganda tool. Claims study
A new report concludes that search results are being affected by the Chinese government for many keywords related to topics like Covid-19, and the treatment of Uyghur Mulsims in the country.
Search Engine Optimization, also known as SEO, is a widely used tool for companies to drive more people to their website pages. Numerous website builders offer a variety of SEO features.
It isn’t common to find SEO used for geopolitical reasons. Google’s immense reach is no surprise, but it’s no surprise that one the world’s most powerful nations has seen it as a chance to disseminate data.
China’s Search Engine Soft Power
The study was carried out by the Alliance for Securing Democracy.
It centered its search terms on Covid-19 as well as the Xinjiang Region of China. These are two points of geopolitical contention that Xi Jinping’s party is concerned
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“Beijing focuses on being a responsible global leader” – Winning in the web: Beijing’s use of search results to influence views of Xinjiang/COVID-19
The country was criticised for failing to manage the first outbreak of Covid-19 that caused havoc in the world.
The report states that the SEO push was based in Beijing’s focus on “positioning itself as a responsible leader worldwide and softening perceptions towards the contrary.”
Beijing-Backed Media Floods Results
A Chinese state-supported news agency appeared in the 10 first results for “Xinjiang” on 88% percent of searches – it was searched 106/120 days.
YouTube found similar results. Chinese state channels were also among the top ten results in 98%, this time on 118/120 searches.
The research team found Google/Bing News/Youtube Search were more likely return state-backed propaganda pieces than Google and Bing Search.
Searches to “Fort Detrick” — the center of a Chinese promoted conspiracy theory that suggests that the epicenter in the Covid-19 epidemic was actually a US base military base – often led content from sites backed Beijing. In our study, “619 observation of videos from Chinese media outlets appeared in 10 of the top search results” (or roughly five per daily).
The research team found that News and YouTube Search were more likely, on average, to deliver state-backed propaganda pieces as compared to Google Search or Bing Search.
Researchers discovered that Chinese state media accounted in part for approximately 22% of all pages and 25% for channels in search results for topics related to Xinjiang or the origins coronavirus.
Google Search and Bing Search were only 6%, respectively.
Search Engines Have the Potential to Stop China Exploiting Search Engines
It’s complicated. CNET spoke to Ned Adriance from Google. Adriance explained that Google works hard to counter coordinated influence and censorship. Microsoft is also reviewing the findings.
The evidence is there to suggest that this is true. The report also notes that China appears to be less able to affect searches relating Covid-19. This could likely be because search engines like Google spend a lot on moderating similar content.
The report notes that China seems less capable of impacting searches relating to Covid-19. This may be due to Google and other search engines spending a lot more time moderating similar content.
The report also mentions the fact it is hard to identify exactly what is coming to Beijing because of China’s intricate web, “content hosting, influencer arrangement”.
The Brookings Institution & the Alliance for Securing Democracy published “Chinese media content verbatim” from at most 19 different sources.
If included, this would increase search results with state-backed content by 10 percent.
The Helsinki Times, with around 370,000 monthly users, is an example of this. In an attempt to combat Western Bias, the Helsinki Times began publishing articles directly supplied by China’s People’s Daily in 2020-2021.
SEO: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
SEO is an essential concept for businesses. Many of the websites you visit to review or sell products will have SEO workers who ensure their website rises in the Google rankings.
SEO is so vital that even the most affordable website builders will include SEO tools.
But it is also possible to use it in a devious way, such as for Negative or “Blackhat” SEO. This is the practice whereby you deliberately try to push other sites down the rankings through malicious tactics.
One example is to scrape the website content of all your competitors and place it on a new domain.
These instances of China using SEO techniques to influence Western public opinion might just be the tip.
This could become a powerful geopolitical tool for governments that allows search engine moderation to allow such content to be lost on the internet.