As the war in Ukraine unfolds, Russian propaganda about the conflict has gotten a boost from a friendly source: government officials and state media out of Beijing. In multiple languages and regions around the world, China's "wolf warrior" diplomats and state media routinely amplify Kremlin conspiracy theories rationalizing President Vladimir Putin's invasion, and undermining the credibility and appeal of the United States, NATO, and independent media — even as China declines to endorse the Kremlin's adventurism wholesale. This spring, for example, China's messengers promoted the baseless Russian claim that the United States has been supporting a biological weapons program in Ukraine -- at times, more aggressively than Russia itself.
Because Russian state media have been deamplified or banned by multiple Western social media platforms, Beijing's messaging could play an outsized role in channeling Kremlin talking points to audiences around the world. These narratives do not just spread on social media. Beijing's state-funded publishers have considerable success in a domain that has received comparatively little attention: search results.
For months, our team has been tracking how China has exploited search engine results on Xinjiang and COVID-19, two subjects that are geopolitically salient to Beijing — Xinjiang, because the Chinese government seeks to push back on condemnation of its rights record; COVID-19, because it seeks to deflect criticism for its early mishandling of the pandemic. In both cases, Beijing is quite focused on positioning itself as a responsible global leader and softening perceptions to the contrary. To evaluate these concerns, we compiled daily data over a 120-day period on 12 terms related to Xinjiang and COVID-19 from five different sources: (1) Google Search; (2) Google News; (3) Bing Search; (4) Bing News; and (5) YouTube.