A discussion at the Wikipedia Reddit community yesterday noted that Google searches asking if China owns the disputed South China Sea prominently featured a result from the online encyclopedia parroting the Chinese government position that it “enjoys indisputable sovereignty” over the sea. Reddit users noted the line appeared to be taken from a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement quoted in the article, a fact not included in the Google snippet. The line was removed after the Reddit discussion brought it to attention.
This is only the latest case where Google’s prioritizing of Wikipedia for prominently displayed information has spread propaganda or falsehoods.
Numerous territorial disputes exist regarding the South China Sea, most significantly the dispute over the Spratly Islands. Several Southeast Asian countries as well as the communist Chinese government and the government on Taiwan (who each officially claim the islands as governments representing China) dispute control over some or all of the islands. China’s claims in the sea incorporate other islands and together are cited by the government as the basis for its “nine-dash line” territorial claim, which asserts nearly the entire sea is under Chinese sovereignty. Other countries have criticized the claim as overly broad and vague.
The opening post of the discussion on the Wikipedia Reddit community showed a screen-cap of a Google search asking “Does the South China Sea belong to China?” where the “featured snippet” from Wikipedia’s article on “territorial disputes in the South China Sea” seemed to uncritically recite the mainland government’s stance by stating: “China enjoys indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea and the island. China’s stand is based on historical facts and international law. China’s sovereign rights and positions are formed in the course of history and this position has been held by Chinese Government for long.” Other searches for variations of the question displayed the same snippet.
Such “featured snippets” are reportedly produced by Google’s search engine based on its algorithm determining what “will help people more easily discover what they’re seeking” with the search. Users noted the Google snippet matched a quote on the Wikipedia page from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu, who was responding to an oil exploration deal India’s oil exploration company had signed with Vietnam’s state oil firm, a deal involving parts of the South China Sea.
In the “featured snippet” in Google’s search results, the statement’s origination with the Chinese government was not included and only a single quotation mark easily missed at the beginning of the snippet was present to indicate this was not a statement by Wikipedia. The offending line was removed from the page after the Reddit discussion started and subsequent searches now display a less one-sided snippet scraped from a news article.
Citing several technical rule violations, such as rules requiring links rather than screen-caps and arguing the discussion was more related to Google than Wikipedia, the post that began the Reddit discussion was removed by the Wikipedia Reddit community’s moderators. The moderator removing the post further argued that the post was using the Reddit community as a “personal army” citing how the line on Wikipedia was already removed due to the discussion thread. At the time of its removal, the initial post had received over 800 up-votes, which increase a post’s prominence in Reddit communities.
Problems with Google search results prominently repeating biased or false information due to its reliance on Wikipedia are not new. Google regularly prioritizes information from the online encyclopedia and it has sometimes spread false or inflammatory attacks due to vandalism. This has included incidents affecting Google’s knowledge panels, which are often displayed in the sidebar of search results and use the introduction of Wikipedia articles. Vandalism to the page on the California Republican Party saw Google listing “nazism” as part of its ideology and vandals this year had the Conservative Political Action Conference described in the knowledge panel as a gathering of “neo-Nazis” and “rapists” among other undesirable types.
Use of Wikipedia by Google and other Big Tech companies in their services has increased as they respond to corporate media pressure over “fake news” online. Wikipedia’s owners have encouraged using the site as a measure against “fake news” after such a strategy was suggested to them in a communications audit by Minassian Media, run by the Communications head at the Clinton Foundation. Site owners have also announced a commercial service specifically seeking to earn revenue from Big Tech’s use of Wikipedia contents, while more effectively furnishing them with the site’s contents.
Despite Big Tech’s greater reliance on Wikipedia for information, the site continues to be involved in the spreading of hoaxes. It has also been criticized for a left-wing bias by its own co-founder with studies and analyses demonstrating such a bias, a problem persisting even as the site reached 20 years old this year. Left-wing editors have even previously smeared China critics the Epoch Times, including by repeating narratives used by the Chinese government to justify persecuting the Falun Gong spiritual movement associated with the outlet. Editors later banned the outlet as a source as part of an ongoing purge of sources sympathetic to right-wing causes.
T. D. Adler edited Wikipedia as The Devil’s Advocate. He was banned after privately reporting conflict of interest editing by one of the site’s administrators. Due to previous witch-hunts led by mainstream Wikipedians against their critics, Adler writes under an alias.