Despite frequently appearing among the top results on Google search, a case study shows that Chinese state media attract surprisingly little traffic through global news-related keywords. However, among those rare cases, anti-US content and China’s Ukraine-related disinformation narratives feature prominently.
A study published by the Brookings Institution and the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy shows that Chinese media managed to optimize their websites in order to appear frequently and among the top results when searching for information on Xinjiang and the COVID-19 pandemic. The result of data collection conducted for 120 days showed that 16 percent of the search results constituted Chinese state media content.
The algorithms determining the search results change frequently, which also requires constant optimizations. Search engines rank pages based on a variety of factors, such as the date of the publication, the relevance of the webpage, and technical and security aspects.
One of the key aspects that the algorithms consider are keywords that users apply to define queries for a certain topic. In some cases, Chinese state media may appear among the top-ranking results. However, the user chooses which result seems the most relevant or interesting. Although it is not easy to estimate to what extent users opt for Chinese media over other results, it is possible to examine the keywords generating the most traffic on the Chinese state media to gain a better perspective.
Keywords in Focus
For the purposes of this article, Semrush Organic Research tool was used in order to learn more about the traffic generated by Google searches. Semrush uses data from various providers and machine learning algorithms to provide information about domains and URLs. The following data were accessed from October 14 to October 18, 2022. Consequently, it is important to consider this timeframe while reading the article, as the data may frequently change based on trending news.
This article looks at three Chinese media websites targeting foreign audiences – Global Times, China Daily, and CGTN. As all of these media offer content in English and when compared to other countries, the data gathered by Semrush for the US were the most robust, the author worked with the dataset for US searches. Consequently, keywords applied for Google search and generating the most traffic in other countries may differ. The 100 most traffic-generating keywords accounted for half of the traffic in mid-October on Global Times and CGTN, and about one third of traffic on China Daily. Expectedly, the highest-ranking keywords and their combinations referred directly to the titles of the Chinese state media. For instance, in the case of CGTN, from the first 100 keywords generating the most traffic in mid-October 2022, 36 of them suggest that users looked for this exact website, as they applied combinations of words “china, CGTN, news,” etc. These keywords represented about 37 percent of the total traffic on CGTN in mid-October.
Traffic generated on China Daily was predominantly driven by China-related topics, such as Chinese cuisine, culture, and literature. The prevalence of the China-related keywords in the case of China Daily was largely caused by the input of keywords in Chinese characters, suggesting that Chinese-speaking users chose China Daily as the relevant source. Also, in the case of the other two analyzed websites, users looked for information on pandas, gestures considered rude in China, tree symbolism, Chinese food, and sports updates.
The keywords categorized as ‘other’ represent a wide mixture of topics that would hardly represent a category of its own. Curiously, this category also comprised various combinations of keywords searching for the ‘world largest breasts’ which appeared 32 times among the 100 most traffic-generating keywords on Global Times and represented 8.5 percent of the total traffic on this website. All of these searches led to the same article published in 2013.
International Events: Limited but Dangerous Traffic
Perhaps surprisingly, only a handful of keywords focused on international events. From the 13 keywords identified on all of the three considered websites, ten led readers to anti-US articles, such as those on ‘woke culture’, China issuing warnings to Walmart over removing products from Xinjiang, and the US waging color revolutions around the globe.
The remaining three keywords concerned Ukraine-related topics which were often subjected to disinformation or conspiracy theories. Whereas European domain providers and state institutions blocked websites spreading Russian justifications for the invasion and other disinformative content, Chinese media were left untouched and could continue blurring the line between facts and manipulated information. Especially in the early months of the Russian invasion, Chinese officials often parroted Russian narratives, which were further spread by Chinese state media. Therefore, these few keywords merit closer attention.
When searching for “Unit 731,” a Global Times article describing the history of the US using and developing chemical and biological weapons in other countries appeared among the top results. In this article, Global Times mentions Japanese Unit 731 which conducted biological experiments during the Japanese invasion of China. After the war, the US granted unit members immunity from prosecution in exchange for the experiments’ results. The article then elaborates on the alleged cooperation between the US Fort Detrick and Unit 731 members, despite acknowledging the lack of evidence. Chinese officials and state media have already employed similar narratives to label Fort Detrick as the origin of the COVID-19 virus which was, according to Chinese officials, later brought to Wuhan by US Army reservists who competed in the Military World Games in Wuhan. However, without any further context or linkage, this article goes even deeper and quotes Putin’s speech on biolaboratories in Ukraine, contributing to the amplification of the Russian narratives on Ukrainian public health facilities being “US secretly funded biolabs.”
Similarly, those searching for “Neo-Nazism in Ukraine” may end up reading an article on the website of Global Times, which claims, for example, that neo-Nazism “has been growing across Eastern Europe, including Ukraine, under the protection of so-called freedom, democracy and human rights of the West, becoming the poison of society and causing violence, hatred and turmoil.”
Dangers of Disinformation Debunking
Contrary to expectations, keywords on events trending in mid-October, especially the 20th National Congress of the CCP, did not appear in the list of the most traffic generating keywords. Similarly, as mentioned above, keywords related to any international events occurred very sparsely. This shows that despite China’s efforts to improve the standing of its international media, it is not international news or even Chinese domestic politics-related content that drives most of the traffic to these websites.
On the other hand, the appearance of Ukraine-related keywords among those generating the most traffic is worthy of concern. Since the search engines are sensitive to the combination of specific keywords, Chinese media hardly ever appear when searching for updates on the war and entering the most popular keywords, such as “Ukraine news,” “Russian invasion,” etc. However, those searching for two specific topics – neo-Nazism in Ukraine and US biolabs – are highly likely to encounter Chinese media among the top results, which both portray Ukraine in a negative light.
Despite these keywords currently representing solely tenths of a percent of the total traffic to Chinese media, this tendency inevitably requires further attention. As the data were accessed in mid-October and the Ukraine-related keywords still appear among the top keywords generating traffic to Chinese state media, the data might have been completely different at the onset of the Russian invasion.
If the war in Ukraine has brought anything positive, it would be the incentive to create policies and mechanisms to legally address the dissemination of disinformation and conspiracy content. Any legal measures to limit China’s media would currently be viewed as controversial and potentially aggravate already tense relations between the EU and China. However, search engine providers need to acknowledge that they play a significant role in the amplification of China’s narratives on certain topics and adjust their policies accordingly.
Compared to social media, which label state-affiliated media content, search engines do not display any similar kind of labeling. The lack of such information combined with the frequent appearance of Chinese media among top results may impact the efforts of users searching for information or even trying to verify some facts on Google (or other search engines).