Chinese state-backed disinformation over origins of Covid-19 dominates search engine results

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Unfounded Covid-19 conspiracy theories from a laboratory at Fort Detrick, a US Army research facility in Maryland, have proven stubbornly resistant. Researchers from the German Marshall Fund (GMF) Alliance for the Securing of Democracy program on Tuesday released a new report explaining how the success of this type of online disinformation—aggressively pushed by Chinese state media– largely comes from Chinese state actors exploiting the vulnerabilities of Western media ecosystems. The real effect of this infodemia undermines public health and creates serious challenges for democratic sustainability.

The GMF study documented the emergence of disinformation on several platforms, including Google News, YouTube, and Bing News. On various dates in August and September, the majority of the top articles for the search term “Fort Detrick” came from Chinese state media peddling conspiracy theories. Their apparent popularity is due to a data void, where the search term produces limited or problematic information; a similar explanation is a data gap, where credible information is limited and the search term is in high demand. As the Washington Post’s Cristiano Lima reported, Chinese state media disinformation has consistently dominated search engine results this week:

Research of Fort Detrick by The Technology 202 found publications by CGTN and the state-run China Daily among its top results on Google and Bing’s news search engines and on the main YouTube search no later than Monday.

This included a CGTN YouTube video questioning the “terrifying” story of Fort Detrick and stating that more than “15 million Chinese have signed an open letter calling on the World Health Organization (WHO)” to investigate the US military base.

One of the main news search results for Fort Detrick on Microsoft-owned Bing on Monday was a China Daily article titled “Myths About Fort Detrick Must Be Cleared.” The article states: “Now controlling the theory that the virus first appeared in China, more and more information is starting to emerge that ‘Fort Detrick’ may be a compelling possibility as the source of the virus.” . [Source]

The reason why credible information on this topic from reliable sources cannot easily compete with biased content from Chinese state media is due to the nature and structure of popular search engines. Their algorithms are designed to reward more abundant and newer content, which means that the few credible and well-researched articles that debunk the Fort Detrick plot are drowned out by weekly waves of new articles from Chinese state media, inundating the best search results with misinformation.

Despite being aware of search engine rules and state media strategies, responsible media may find it difficult to effectively tackle this misinformation problem. As the GMF report noted, by their very nature credible media must eventually move on to the next story, but Chinese state media may repeat the same plots To infinity:

Finally, China’s ability to mobilize its global propaganda apparatus to shape the research environment at Fort Detrick highlights an asymmetric advantage that autocratic state actors enjoy in the information realm. Unlike democratic media ecosystems, whose media are by design less responsive to the wishes of the state and more responsive to the whimsical interests of the public, autocratic governments can direct state-sponsored news channels to repeatedly target individuals. High-value search terms with preferred narratives. This has created an environment in which state media can effectively own sensitive or strategically important search terms … [Source]

Social media has been a major battleground for Chinese government influence operations. One of the main reasons why Covid-related disinformation produced by state media ranks high in search engines is that the content is distributed widely on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Since May 1st Chinese government and state media accounts on Twitter, many of whom have millions of subscribers, have tweeted or shared nearly 1,000 articles on Fort Detrick. This constant flow of disinformation is also fueled by President Xi Jinping’s continued promotion of “wolf warrior diplomacy”, which aims to more aggressively assert the CCP’s narratives in international discourse.

However, much of the online “virality” of Chinese state-sponsored disinformation is facilitated by fake accounts. In recent years, researchers have detected numerous robot networks linked to the Chinese government and prone to sharing pro-government accounts regarding the pandemic. In August 2019, Twitter deleted nearly 1,000 fake accounts and temporarily suspended another 200,000; Facebook deleted seven inauthentic pages and three groups. All of these groups, which have attracted more than 17,000 members and followers on Facebook alone, were linked to influence operations supported by the Chinese state. Throughout 2020, Graphika traced the evolution of “Spamouflaging DragonA spam network spewing positive messages about the Chinese government’s response to the pandemic on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. At the content level, some of the identities behind these disinformation campaigns are false, such as the Swiss imaginary biologist who criticized the World Health Organization’s Covid tracing efforts, and the french journalist who defended the Chinese government’s policy in Xinjiang.

The real danger stems from the exploitation of the missing data by this industry which supports the conspiracy. In September, Mandiant Threat Intelligence reported an online spam network affiliated with the Chinese government with hundreds of accounts that urged users to attend anti-government protests in the United States The proliferation of Covid-related conspiracy theories has also undermines government public health messages and encourages skepticism about mask and vaccine mandates, which facilitates the spread of the deadly virus.

In the fog of disinformation caused by Chinese state media, Beijing has further exploited citizens’ uncertainties through Covid-themed malware campaigns. New research this week from the BlackBerry Research and Intelligence team revealed a link between a famous Chinese state sponsored cyber threat group and disparate malware campaigns, one of which targeted victims in India with “phishing lures” of fake Indian government opinions on Covid-19 statistics. Ravie Lakshmanan from Hacker News summed up the tactics and scope of the cyber threat group:

“The image we uncovered was of a state-sponsored campaign that plays on people’s hopes of a quick end to the pandemic as a lure to trap its victims,” the BlackBerry Research team said. and Intelligence in a report shared with The Hacker News. “And once on a user’s machine, the threat merges into the digital woods using their own personalized profile to mask their network traffic.

APT41 (aka Barium or Winnti) is a nickname given to a prolific Chinese cyber threat group that conducts state-sponsored espionage activities in conjunction with financially motivated operations for personal gain as early as 2012. Calling the group “Double Dragon ”for its dual purpose, Mandiant (formerly FireEye) highlighted the collective’s penchant for hitting the healthcare, high tech and telecommunications sectors to establish long-term access and facilitate intellectual property theft.

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



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