The top results for a Maryland military base on prominent search engines link to Chinese propaganda that blames the United States for the coronavirus outbreak, a new study finds.
According to a report from the Alliance for Securing Democracy, Chinese propaganda organs rank high on searches conducted on Google and YouTube for information about Fort Detrick, an Army base where the military conducts some biological experiments. The false claim that COVID-19 was created in a Fort Detrick lab is one of many conspiracy theories China’s state-owned media outlets push to deflect blame for the pandemic.
The Washington Free Beacon confirmed aspects of the report. A Google search for "Fort Detrick" returned two propaganda articles on the search engine’s front page, including one from the state-controlled TV network CGTN. Google’s "News" section had articles from CGTN and China Daily at the top of its search returns.
Chinese misinformation campaigns are not new, but China has stepped up its efforts to mislead Americans during the pandemic. Chinese bots led an online campaign to tar the "lab leak" theory of COVID-19’s origins as racist, according to a recent Google security report. Thousands of YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook accounts were involved in the campaign, which security researchers said was "almost certainly supported by a government sponsor."
The first video that appears when a user searches for "Fort Detrick" on YouTube is a CGTN segment from July promoting the Fort Detrick theory. Another CGTN video calls on Washington to investigate whether Fort Detrick created the virus. A Facebook search returns several China Daily cartoons and two news articles pushing the Fort Detrick theory.
Democrats have called for regulation of social media sites and search engines, blaming conservatives and foreign actors like the Russian government for spreading disinformation. They have largely ignored false information spread by liberals or by the Chinese government. In a "comparative social media policy analysis" produced by the Democratic National Convention, Google is the only major tech company to receive full marks for promoting "authoritative news over highly engaging news in content algorithms."
The Chinese disinformation campaign about the origins of the virus has filled a "data void" about Fort Detrick online, according to the Alliance for Securing Democracy report. By pushing false narratives about a subject that does not have much news associated with it, the campaign has dominated online results for Fort Detrick with little effort.
Chinese government officials began pushing the Fort Detrick theory last year as a rebuttal to allegations that the virus originated in a Wuhan lab. Zhao Lijian, the spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asserted in March 2020 that the U.S. military may have released the virus in China. The foreign ministry has since called repeatedly on world health officials to investigate the Fort Detrick claim.
While the Fort Detrick theory is largely discredited, scientists and the U.S. intelligence community are divided over whether the first human coronavirus infection occurred after a lab accident in Wuhan or by jumping from an animal species to humans. Proponents of the Wuhan lab leak theory note that Chinese officials have refused to grant full access to data from early in the pandemic.
Google's results are not fully automated by its algorithm. Instead, Google employees regularly edit results at all levels of the search process, from the autofill searches that pop up as a user types to the results that come up for various sensitive searches. A Wall Street Journal investigation found Google regularly adjusts where content shows up in search results in response to outside pressure.
In one case, a leaked video of Google executives discussing former president Donald Trump's 2016 election was bumped up from the 12th page of results for "leaked Google video Trump" after an outcry from Google employees. The company maintains blacklists of words that can't come up in Google News results, despite testifying before Congress in 2018 that it did not use blacklists. Google also uses "anti-misinformation" blacklists that stop some publishers from appearing in Google News. But the company has apparently not intervened to reduce the spread of Chinese propaganda.
According to Google spokeswoman Lara Levin, the search results "represent a tiny fraction of the overall searches for coronavirus-related information on Google."