Searching about Fort Detrick? You’ll likely find Chinese propaganda, study finds.
Chinese government officials and state media are exploiting gaps in search results on powerful engines like Google, YouTube and Bing to advance conspiracy theories about the origins of covid-19, according to a new report shared exclusively with The Technology 202.
In particular, they have fixated on amplifying stories that boost the baseless theory that the coronavirus was created out of a lab at Fort Detrick, a military base in Maryland that’s been at the center of numerous viral hoaxes over the years.
Chinese state media and officials have posted over 1,000 tweets, articles and videos about Fort Detrick since May, in doing so “flooding social media platforms with elaborate conspiracy theories that have been thoroughly debunked,” according to a report released Tuesday by the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD), a nonpartisan initiative housed in the German Marshall Fund.
What’s particularly noteworthy about the campaign, researchers said, is that the officials have tapped into a highly effective means for spreading misinformation and disinformation: filling the Internet with misleading content on issues where there’s a dearth of reliable information. The result is that when users search for these more obscure topics — when they type “Fort Detrick” into Google or Bing — they are more likely to see Chinese-backed conspiracy theories.
That’s a trend that’s manifested across search engines for users searching about the military base in recent months, researchers found.
It’s what researchers call a “data void” — and they say it’s being weaponized by China to push unfounded claims covid-19 came from a lab in the U.S.
“It gives an advantage to those who are trying to promote this conspiracy because they continue to publish on it over and over and over and over, so that when someone who's not familiar with the term just Googles it … you tend to get the conspiracy theorist’s point of view,” said Bret Schafer, a media and digital disinformation fellow at ASD who co-authored the report.
According to the report, news search results for Fort Detrick across Google, YouTube and Bing were “dominated” by state-run Chinese media such as CGTN and the Global Times at various times since May. Researchers called the outlets “central to Beijing’s information operations.”
Google spokesperson Lara Levin said that the “example queries in this report represent a tiny fraction of the overall searches for coronavirus-related information on Google.” Levin said data voids “are a known challenge” that Google, which owns YouTube, is trying to address. Microsoft, which owns Bing, declined comment.
The trend has extended to the present day.
Searches for Fort Detrick conducted by The Technology 202 surfaced posts by CGTN and the state-run China Daily among its top results on both Google’s and Bing’s search engines for news and on YouTube’s main search engine as recently as Monday.
That included a YouTube video by CGTN questioning the “terrifying” history of Fort Detrick and stating that more than “15 million Chinese have signed an open letter calling for the World Health Organization (WHO)” to investigate the U.S. military base.
One of the top news search results for Fort Detrick on Microsoft-owned Bing on Monday was an article by China Daily titled, “Myths about Fort Detrick need to be clarified.” The article states, “Now countering the theory that the virus first emerged in China, more information is starting to appear that” Fort Detrick “may be a compelling possibility as the source of the virus.”
China Daily, CGTN, Global News and the Chinese embassy in the U.S. did not respond to requests for comment.
Researchers said not all the posts they tracked contained outright falsehoods about the origins of covid-19, but that by flooding the zone with misleading or suggestive content about Fort Detrick, China has effectively mounted a disinformation campaign.
“If you have a disinformation campaign going and then you publish mildly truthful things to still keep attention on this particular topic, that still contributes to the overall campaign,” said ASD junior fellow Elen Aghekyan, who also co-authored the report.
Schafer said Chinese state media and officials “are often careful in the framing to just be suggestive” and to “stay on the right side of the line” with individual posts.
“It’s building this argument, sort of brick by brick, sometimes directly connecting Fort Detrick to the coronavirus, sometimes just you know, casting aspersions on the lab in general,” he said.
Researchers said tech companies are aware of the issue and have taken steps to mitigate it, including by alerting users when there are limited search results for a term, or by notifying them during breaking news scenarios that information is developing.
Ultimately, though, researchers said that data voids represent broader issues with the informational ecosystem that Silicon Valley companies alone can’t fix.
“It's definitely a problem with no easy solutions, and certainly not with solutions that only the search engines can deliver,” Aghekyan said.
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