Chinese State-Backed Disinformation on Covid-19 Origins Dominates Search Engine Results

Baseless conspiracy theories about Covid-19 originating in a lab at Fort Detrick, a U.S. army research facility in Maryland, have proven stubbornly resilient. Researchers at the German Marshall Fund’s (GMF) Alliance for Securing Democracy program published a new report on Tuesday explaining how the success of this sort of online disinformation—aggressively pushed by Chinese state media—comes largely from Chinese state actors exploiting vulnerabilities in Western media ecosystems. The real-world effect of this infodemic undermines public health and creates serious challenges for democratic sustainability. 

The GMF study documented how disinformation appeared across multiple platforms, including Google News, YouTube, and Bing News. On various dates in August and September, the majority of the top stories for the search term “Fort Detrick” emanated from Chinese state media outlets peddling conspiracy theories. Their apparent popularity is due to a data void, whereby the search term produces limited or problematic information; a similar explanation is a data deficit, whereby credible information is limited and the search term is in high demand. As Cristiano Lima from the Washington Post reported, disinformation from Chinese state media still dominated search engine results this week:

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.” [Source]

The reason that credible news about this topic from reliable sources cannot easily compete with biased Chinese state-media content is due to the nature and structure of popular search engines. Their algorithms are designed to reward more copious and more recent content, which means that the few well-researched, credible articles that debunk the Fort Detrick conspiracy are drowned out by weekly waves of new articles by Chinese state media, flooding the top search results with disinformation. 

Despite being aware of search-engine rules and state-media strategies, responsible media outlets may struggle to effectively counteract this problem of disinformation. As the GMF report noted, by their very nature, credible media outlets eventually have to move on to the next story, but Chinese state media can repeat the same conspiracies ad infinitum

Finally, China’s ability to marshal its global propaganda apparatus to shape the Fort Detrick search environment highlights an asymmetric advantage autocratic state actors enjoy in the information domain. Unlike democratic media ecosystems, whose outlets are by design less responsive to the wishes of the state and more responsive to the capricious interests of the public, autocratic governments can direct state-sponsored information channels to repeatedly target high value search terms with preferential narratives. This has created an environment where state media outlets can effectively own sensitive or strategically important search terms… [Source]

Social media has been a major battleground for the Chinese government’s influence operations. One major reason why Covid-related disinformation produced by state media occupies top positions in search engines is because the content is widely distributed on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Since May 1, Chinese government and state-media accounts on Twitter, many with millions of followers, have tweeted or shared almost 1,000 posts about Fort Detrick. This steady stream of disinformation is also fueled by President Xi Jinping’s continued promotion of “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy,” which aims to more aggressively assert CCP narratives into international discourse.

However, much of the online “virality” of Chinese state-backed disinformation is facilitated through fake accounts. Over the past few years, researchers have detected numerous networks of bots linked to the Chinese government and prone to sharing pro-government narratives regarding the pandemic. In August 2019, Twitter removed almost 1,000 fake accounts and temporarily suspended another 200,000; Facebook removed seven inauthentic pages and three groups. All of these groups, which attracted over 17,000 members and followers on Facebook alone, were linked to Chinese state-backed influence operations. Throughout 2020, Graphika traced the evolution of “Spamouflage Dragon,” a spam network spewing positive messages about the Chinese government’s response to the pandemic across YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. At the content level, some of the identities behind these disinformation drives are fake, such as the imaginary Swiss biologist who criticized the World Health Organization’s Covid-tracing efforts, and the French reporter who defended the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang.

Real-world danger arises from this conspiracy-backing industry’s exploitation of data voids. In September, Mandiant Threat Intelligence reported on an online Chinese government-affiliated spam network of hundreds of accounts that incited users to attend anti-government protests in the U.S. The proliferation of Covid-related conspiracy theories also undermines government public health messaging and fosters skepticism towards mask and vaccine mandates, which facilitates the spread of the deadly virus.

In the fog of disinformation brought on by Chinese state media, Beijing has further exploited citizens’ uncertainties via Covid-themed malware campaigns. New research this week from BlackBerry’s Research & Intelligence Team revealed a connection between a notorious Chinese state-sponsored cyber threat group and disparate malware campaigns, one of which targeted victims in India with “phishing lures” of fake Indian government notices about Covid-19 statistics. Ravie Lakshmanan at Hacker News summarized the tactics and scope of the cyber threat group:

“The image we uncovered was that of a state-sponsored campaign that plays on people’s hopes for a swift end to the pandemic as a lure to entrap its victims,” the BlackBerry Research and Intelligence team said in a report shared with The Hacker News. “And once on a user’s machine, the threat blends into the digital woodwork by using its own customized profile to hide its network traffic.”

APT41 (aka Barium or Winnti) is a moniker assigned to a prolific Chinese cyber threat group that carries out state-sponsored espionage activity in conjunction with financially motivated operations for personal gain as far back as 2012. Calling the group “Double Dragon” for its twin objectives, Mandiant (formerly FireEye) pointed out the collective’s penchant for striking healthcare, high-tech, and telecommunications sectors for establishing long-term access and facilitating the theft of intellectual property.

[…] “With the resources of a nation-state level threat group, it’s possible to create a truly staggering level of diversity in their infrastructure,” the researchers said… [Source]

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