Disinformation

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No,  400,000 people haven’t died from Covid-19 vaccines

No,  400,000 people haven’t died from Covid-19 vaccines

Conspiracy theory websites and social media channels have leapt on a new piece of research that, they say, shows Covid-19 shots have killed more than 400,000 people in the U.S. Furthermore, they say adverse events reporting systems underestimate side effects by some...

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No, young athletes are not collapsing after vaccination

No, young athletes are not collapsing after vaccination

Videos of young athletes collapsing and even dying are spreading fast on social media. The falls, many users falsely suggest, are the result of sudden, serious heart problems brought on by Covid-19 jabs. Designed to scare, these claims are being used to undermine the...

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No, vaccines are not causing thousands of excess deaths 

No, vaccines are not causing thousands of excess deaths 

Over the course of the pandemic, most countries have seen more deaths than normal as Covid-19 has travelled through the population. In many cases, deaths have risen and fallen along with national outbreaks. But in recent months, some highly vaccinated countries have...

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How China’s propaganda machine slips fake news into search engine results

Katherine Hignett
Health Studio
United Kingdom

A renewed interest in the origin of Covid-19 has seen Chinese officials and state outlets up their efforts to distance the country from the outbreak in recent months. From tweets to fake news stories, numerous false and misleading narratives have been used to discredit the accepted idea that the disease emerged in China.

While much of this material remains obscure compared to other Covid-19-related content, a dearth of mainstream coverage has allowed Chinese propaganda outlets to dominate search engine results for certain conspiracy theory-related terms.

One notable example is a continued stream of content calling for investigations into the US Fort Detrick military lab, according to research from the Alliance for Securing Democracy. As Health Studio previously reported, Chinese government officials have been pushing the narrative that the disease could have emerged from this Maryland facility since the early days of the pandemic. Derived from decades-old conspiracy theories about the lab, which was once a biological weapons research centre, this is an easy target for pro-China propagandists looking to spread confusion about Covid-19’s origins and cast suspicion on the US: often considered an adversarial nation.

Over the summer, as American president Joe Biden called for further investigation into the emergence of Covid-19, Chinese state-run media outlets pumped out more and more content about Fort Detrick. Too outlandish a topic to be regularly covered by traditional news websites, articles from state outlets continue to hold prominent positions in results from popular search engines like Google and Bing. Even now, Chinese state-run news websites rank highly in Google searches for “Fort Detrick”.

 

A misleading article from Global Times appears as the sixth-highest result for a Google search for “Fort Detrick”. Global Times is published by the People’s Daily newspaper group: an organisation owned and run by the ruling Chinese Communisty Party (CCP). [Results returned 22/10/2021]

 

Similarly on Google News, a Global Times article mentioning the facility appears in the first page of results alongside respected titles like the Washington Post and the New York Times. The piece, entitled “Uncle Sam’s dark secrets you may not know,” is a list of human rights abuses the author alleges the US has carried out. Written as a keyword-driven listicle, the piece is likely to show up in searches for numerous conspiracy theory-adjacent terms.

 

 

Search engines tend to prioritise certain web pages over others, ranking newer pages higher than older ones, for example. But when there is a consistent trickle of stories, as in the case of Fort Detrick, state outlets are able to maintain their prominence amid more newsworthy reports. In late October, for example, new information about a local shooting held the top three spots on Google searches for “Fort Detrick.” Scroll further down the page, however, and you’ll find a misleading Global Times story.

Although Chinese state outlets dominated Youtube’s search results for the military base earlier this year, other low-quality content now peppers the page. As of October 22, the first result for “Fort Detrick” is a video from right-wing Indian network Republic World, which is known for sharing fake news. The China-friendly video again calls for an investigation into Fort Detrick.

 

The first Youtube search result for “Fort Detrick” is a video from right-wing Indian news channel Republic World. The network has been criticised heavily for publishing fake news. [Result returned 22.10.21].

 

Although the exact origin of the virus that causes Covid-19 remains unknown, it’s highly likely it emerged in or near the city of Wuhan, as this was the location of the first detected cluster of cases back in December 2019. Claims it was developed in or released from a US lab are highly suspect; particularly when they are made without supporting evidence.

But a lack of evidence doesn’t stop fake news from spreading. Misleading articles are systematically republished and organically reposted by both bad actors and regular social media users, as Health Studio has previously described. As China ramped up its Fort Detrick content production this summer, more and more related posts appeared on niche forums like 4chan, as the chart below shows.

 

This chart made with social media-scraping tool 4CAT shows the number of posts mentioning “Fort Detrick” published each month in 2021.

 

And, as a word tree populated by these 4chan posts reveals, the narrative pushed by China is a prominent theme among discussions on the platform.

 

This excerpt of a word tree built from 4chan posts including the words “Fort Detrick” mirrors the Covid-19 origin theme promoted by Chinese state outlets.

 

Wherever you’re browsing, be it a social media platform, a forum, a news website or a search engine, it’s important to be critical about the information you find. The material you find on Google may not be accurate, and may not present an impartial picture of the topic at hand. This is especially true for topics like Fort Detrick, about which good-quality content is rarely published. The less information there is about a topic, the more open it is to abuse.

Katherine Hignett -
Health Studio
United Kingdom

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