Google has already been criticised by some for not calling out China over disinformation about Hong Kong, but despite disabling 210 YouTube channels with suspected Chinese state links, Google’s new move to label Hong Kong YouTube videos hasn’t gone down well.
Big Social Media Platforms Act
Facebook and Twitter recently announced that they have banned a number of accounts on their platforms due to what the popular social media platforms are calling “coordinated influence operations”. In other words, Chinese state-sponsored communications designed to influence opinion (pro-Beijing viewpoints) and to spread disinformation. Twitter and Facebook are both blocked in mainland China anyway by the country’s notorious firewall but both platforms can be accessed in Hong King and Twitter recently suspended over 900 accounts believed to originate in China. The reasons for the suspensions included spam, fake accounts and ban evasion.
Google Labels Videos
Google’s response, which some critics have seen as being late anyway has been to add information panels to videos on its Hong Kong-facing site saying whether the video has been uploaded by media organisations that receive government funding or public funding. The panels, which are live in 10 regions, were intended to give viewers an insight into whether the videos are state-funded or not.
Unfortunately, Google did not consider the fact that some media receives government funding, but are editorially independent, and the labelling has effectively put them in the same category as media that purely spreads government information.
Google and China
Many commentators have noted an apparent reluctance by Google to distance itself from the more repressive side of the Chinese state. For example, Google has been criticised for not publicly criticising China over the state’s disinformation campaign about the Hong Kong protests. Also, Google was recently reported to have a secret plan (Project Dragonfly) to develop a censored search engine for the Chinese market and it’s been reported that Google has an A.I research division in China.
Disinformation By Bot? Not
There have been fears that just as bots can be a time and cost-saving way of writing and distributing information, they could also be used to write disinformation and could even reach the point soon where they are equal in ability to human writers. For example, the text generator, built by the research firm OpenAI, has (until recently) been considered to be too dangerous to make (the ‘trained’ version) public because of the potential for abuse in terms of using it to write disinformation. In tests (the BBC, AI experts, and a Sheffield University professor) however, it proved to be relatively ineffective at generating meaningful text from input headlines, although it did appear able to reflect news bias in its writing.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
The influence via social media in the last US presidential election campaign and the UK referendum (with the help of Cambridge Analytica) brought the whole subject of disinformation into sharp focus, and the Chinese state media’s response to the Hong King demonstrations has given more fuel to the narrative coming from the current US administration (Huawei accusations and trade war) that China should be considered a threat. Google’s apparent lack of public criticism of Chinese state media disinformation efforts is in contrast to the response of social media giants Facebook and Twitter, and this coupled with reports of the company trying to develop a censored search engine for China to allow it to get back into the market over there means that Google is likely to be scrutinised and criticised by US state voices.
It is difficult for many users of social media channels to spot bias and disinformation, and although Google may have tried to do the right thing by labelling videos, its failure to take account of the media structure in China has meant more criticism for Google. As an advertising platform for businesses, Google needs to take care of its public image, and this kind of bad publicity is unlikely to help.