Our Take

China has been exploiting search results on Google, Bing, and YouTube to spread state narratives and disinformation about Xinjiang and COVID-19, ASD’s Bret Schafer and Elen Aghekyan find in a new report with the Brookings Institution. The report was covered exclusively in the Wall Street Journal.

While all eyes are on Russia’s war in Ukraine, China continues to interfere in democracies by harassing activists to subvert civil society, conducting cyber operations against public and private organizations, and abusing its economic weight to shape democratic governments’ decision-making. Research Analyst Etienne Soula highlights the latest incidents from our Authoritarian Interference Tracker in a new blogpost.  

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Hamilton 2.0 Analysis

Russian diplomats and state media focused on the following three topics last week:   

  • Ukraine: Kremlin-linked accounts argued that Ukraine had committed war crimes, that sanctions against Russia hurt the West, and that Sweden and Finland’s bids to join NATO would undermine security, though mentions of the two countries dropped compared to the previous week.
  • Colombian election: Sputnik called political violence the “protagonist” of the first round of Colombia’s presidential election, while other Moscow-backed accounts elevated claims of election fraud and reports that election observers couldn’t enter Colombia.  
  • Texas shooting: While Kremlin-affiliated outlets largely provided factual coverage of how U.S. citizens, activists, and lawmakers reacted to the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, some state-backed commentators used the shooting to discredit U.S. democracy. 

Chinese diplomats and state media highlighted three narratives last week: 

  • Xinjiang: Xinjiang was the most used key phrase by Beijing-linked accounts as they sought to discredit leaked documents on China’s repression in the region and amplified positive content about Xinjiang alongside a UN delegation’s visit to the territory.
  • Taiwan: President Biden’s statement that the United States would respond militarily if China attacked Taiwan prompted a barrage of angry reactions from Chinese diplomats and state media, with one official warning that China kept “fine wine for friends and shotguns for jackals.”
  • Texas shooting: In Chinese diplomatic and state media tweets mentioning the United States, “gunviolence” and “Texas” were the first and third most used hashtags as Chinese accounts bashed the U.S. government for being incompetent and unable to protect its citizens.  

Read the full report here.

News and Commentary

EU to ban majority of Russian oil imports: After weeks of negotiating, European Union leaders agreed to ban 90 percent of Russian oil imports by the end of the year—a decision that immediately halts seaborn deliveries of Russian oil but exempts deliveries from the Russian Druzhba pipeline to appease Hungary after the country blocked efforts to impose a total ban. Senior Fellow Kristine Berzina told the Dispatch, “It is laudable that the EU managed to agree on the sixth sanctions package and that tanker oil deliveries are included. Inflation, infighting, and war-fatigue appear to be restricting the speed and ambition of policies. But not passing this package would be damaging to the EU’s foreign policy credibility in opposing Russia’s invasion. It will be essential for the EU, NATO, and the United States to continue to maintain unity and pressure on Russia.”

States ramp up efforts to combat election-related misinformation: As voter confidence in elections has fallen, a number of states have invested in marketing campaigns to combat election-related misinformation, and some states have hired experts to monitor and report false or misleading content about voting. Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine said, “After being deluged with tsunamis of election mis- and disinformation throughout 2020, it is good to see so many election officials taking a more proactive approach to combating these threats ahead of this year’s midterm elections. Whether the American people will see the wisdom of such efforts, and robustly support them, remains to be seen.”

China and Pacific Island countries fail to reach deal: On May 30, ten Pacific Island countries rejected a regional economic and security deal with China that would have increased cooperation on internet networks, communications infrastructure, cybersecurity, and trade amid concerns over China’s growing economic influence in the region. China Affairs Analyst Bryce Barros said, Historically, China has preferred to engage in bilateral agreements to gain leverage over smaller countries. So even though this rejection might seem like a good sign for the United States and its allies, China can still push for individual deals with the various Pacific Island countries. The United States should use this opportunity to strengthen ties with its existing regional partners, so it can rebuild its credibility and better counter China’s influence in the region.”

In Case You Missed It 

  • The Republican National Committee is planning to deploy trained volunteers to challenge voters in Democratic-majority polling places and connect them with party attorneys to potentially overturn votes in swing states. 
  • Russian prosecutors are likely to suspend a case against members of the REvil ransomware gang that was blamed for the largest U.S. ransomware attack, ending future prospects for U.S.-Russia cooperation on the issue.
  • The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency found no evidence that vulnerabilities in Dominion voting machines were ever exploited to change election results.
  • Ukrainian officials reported a “shutdown of all communications” that disabled mobile communication and internet access in the Russian-occupied southern region Kherson.
  • Turkey’s ruling party submitted a draft bill to parliament that would impose prison terms on individuals who spread “disinformation” and “fake news” on digital platforms; government critics say the bill would enable censorship and suppress dissent.
  • EU leaders warned African countries against falling for pro-Russian propaganda that blames Western sanctions against Russia for the imminent global food crisis. 

ASD in the News

China is Spreading Disinformation… Through Search Engines. Junior Fellow Elen Aghekyan interviewed on Inside Sources with Boyd Matheson 

Chinese state media propaganda found in 88% of Google, Bing news searches. ASD’s research covered in CyberScoop

China’s propaganda ranks highly on Google, YouTube searches: study. ASD’s research covered in the New York Post

Google search results elevate China’s narratives on COVID origins, human rights record: study. ASD’s research covered in the Washington Times

State-Published Articles on COVID Tops Google Searches: Are the Results Allegedly Manipulated? ASD’s research covered in Tech Times

China Is Manipulating Search Engines to Push Propaganda on COVID, Uyghur Muslims. ASD’s research covered in CNET

What Will be the Results of New Voting Laws in Georgia? Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine interviewed on Newsy

Georgia primary went well, but jury is still out on election law’s impact. Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine interviewed on The Fulcrum

Washington and Beijing Are Mulling Defense Talks in a Bid to Ease Tensions. Co-Director Zack Cooper quoted in Time

FOCUS: Indo-Pacific alignment against China still elusive despite Biden trip. Co-Director Zack Cooper quoted in Kyodo News

Will China Invade Taiwan? Research Analyst Bryce Barros quoted in Newsweek

Quote of the Week

“Our task is to prove once again that democracy can meet urgent challenges and create opportunity to advance human dignity, and that the future belongs to those who believe in freedom.” 

  • U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a speech at the Asia Society in Washington, D.C. on May 26, 2022.
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The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.