Baidu's suggested search feature is very revealing.
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What Baidu’s search autofill reveals about the soul of the average Chinese web surfer

“What do I do if I'm ugly?”, and other questions.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Bored at work? Type “why is” into Google, and up pops a list of the most common user questions beginning with that phrase, such as “why is the sky blue” and “why is my poop green”. Then try “what is”, “how do you”, “how to pronounce”, and so on, and before you know it you’ll be face deep in the greatest parlour game/time-suck of the early twenty-first century. After Google Suggest debuted in 2008, it quickly became a handy tool for armchair psychologists looking to analyse our collective psyche. Among its revelations: we cheat on the New York Times crossword, we don’t know how to pronounce “gif”, and we mainly use the internet to find song lyrics. Google Suggest tunnels into the far recesses of the soul, revealing humanity at its most innocent (“why am I me”), ugly (“I am extremely terrified of Chinese people”), and bizarre (“I like to tape my thumbs to my hands to see what it would be like to be a dinosaur”).

Baidu, the Chinese search engine, has a similar feature. Foreign Policy recently used it to develop a map of China by regional stereotype, while others have mined it to learn what Chinese think of foreigners from various nations. But that’s just a start. There’s a lot more Baidu can tell us about China’s search engine users, from their hopes and fears to their obsessions and consumer preferences. As I played around with the tool this week, a portrait of the average Baidu user started to emerge: a broke, sexually frustrated guy/girl who wants to become a teacher, buy a car, marry, and have a son (or, better yet, twins), if only he/she can get this damned wifi router to work.

Indeed, China has many problems, but the biggest headache plaguing Baidu users seems to be how to get wireless. Type in “怎么”, or “how”, and four of the top ten suggestions involve the setting up of routers and cracking of passwords. (For simplicity, the searches below are all translated from Mandarin.) Rivalling wifi for subject of greatest concern is pregnancy. “How do I make sure I have a son?” users ask, reflecting a common desire in China, especially under the government’s one-child policy. Women also want to know how to “get pregnant quickly” and have “dragon-phoenix twins”, or twins of opposite genders. Otherwise, users are most concerned with how to “buy stocks”, “apply eye-liner”, “download videos”, “reduce belly fat”, “repair a kidney”, and “catch pheasants”, slang for soliciting prostitutes.

Sex questions are popular – understandably so, given the relative dearth of sex education in China. (Plus, asking the internet is less awkward than asking your teacher or mom.) The top “why” question among Googlers may be “why is the sky blue”, but Baidu users have a different primary concern: “why is my semen yellow?” Runners up include “why do I ejaculate so quickly?” and “why don’t I have any semen?” They also pose questions they might be too shy to ask their partners, such as, “why do girls go to the bathroom after sex?” You may have noticed these are all dude questions. It’s hard to say whether that’s because Chinese men have a disproportionately large number of sexual hang-ups, or because Baidu users are disproportionately male, or because China itself is disproportionately male. Evidence points to the latter two explanations: if you type in “I’m looking for”, “a wife” makes the list of top suggestions, but “a husband” does not.

Physical appearance is another perennial source of anxiety. Men search for ways to “grow taller” and “cure baldness”, while women ask how to “make my skin white”, “make my legs thinner”, and “make my face thinner”. “Am I handsome?” is the most common search about users’ appearance, followed by “I’m ugly”, “I’m very ugly”, and “what do I do if I’m ugly?” Insult to injury, the search results page is populated with photos of beautiful celebrities.

Baidu also catalogs the hopes and dreams of its users. The search term “my dream is” reveals the most-sought profession to be teacher, followed by doctor, designer, police officer, scientist, painter, astronaut, and soldier, in that order. And whatever their job, Baidu-ers want the trappings of a middle class lifestyle. The most common phrase that starts with “I want to buy” is “I want to buy a car.” A close second: “I want to buy a car but I have no money, what do I do?” After that, users are most interested in purchasing a phone, a house, a pigeon, and a gun.

Baidu users appear to be hopeless media addicts. A big chunk of search suggestions turn out to be titles of songs, movies, and TV shows, many of which users can stream online. Type in “I am”, and the suggestion box fills with variations on the talent show title I Am a Singer. Type “who”, and you are directed to the dating show Who Can Be One in a Hundred?, the talk show Who’s Talking?, the video game Who’s the Mole?, the movie Unexpected Love (its Chinese title translates as Who Says We Can’t Love?), the movie Who Is the Real Hero?, and the novel Who Didn’t Have an Aimless Youth? Baidu also suggests that users might be looking for the recent ad campaign “Who Can Represent KFC?” According to a spokesman for Baidu, there is no commercial element in the suggested search terms.

Politically sensitive terms do appear to be manipulated. Enter the word “Tiananmen” and you’ll see a short list of suggestions: “Tiananmen Square”, “Tiananmen photos”, “Tiananmen flag raising times”, and “I Love Beijing’s Tiananmen”, the title of a song from 1970. The terms “1988” and “1990” yield searches related to the lunar calendars of those years, but if you want to know when Spring Festival began in 1989, you’re out of luck. Likewise, “六四,” or “6/4,” shorthand for the massacre of 4 June, 1989, produces no suggestions, while 六三 (“6/3”) and 六五 (“6/5”) reveal plenty. Chinese users appear to be turning to Google for answers to these sensitive questions instead. Type the Mandarin word for “why” into Google.com.hk, and the fourth most common search is “Why suppress Falun Gong?” Enter the word for “how” and suggestion number six is “How do I get over the Great Firewall?”

Baidu also tells us which phrases Chinese people want to say in other languages. If you type “How do you say in English,” you learn that the phrase most commonly searched for is 加油 or “add oil”, the Mandarin equivalent of “Go! Go!” Other terms that urgently require translation into English: “Shut up”, “wife”, “pollution”, “resume”, “brassiere”, and “milk powder”. The phrase that Chinese people most want to say in Japanese and Korean? “I love you”.

Some Baidu questions would only make sense to Chinese speakers. For example, a lot of users search for “why is there no northern melon?” In Chinese, pumpkin is “southern melon”, watermelon is “western melon”, and white gourd is “winter melon”, which is a homophone for “eastern melon”. There is, in fact, a “northern melon”, but it’s a lot less common than the others. Other searchers want to know “why is there no western capital?” for a similar reason, as Beijing is the “northern capital”, Nanjing is the “southern capital”, and Tokyo is the “eastern capital”.

But overall, Baidu users have a lot of the same questions and interests as Google users. The top suggestion on Google/Baidu for “I’m feeling”/”我感觉”is “I’m feeling blue”/“我感觉很难过.” Users of both search engines complain about their computers and demand to know what’s happening to their bodies. “Why does my hand sometimes tremble?” Baidu-ers ask, perhaps indicating one too many Baidu searches. In the end, most queries fall into the category of broad human experience. For example, what greater testament to our unity as a species than the fact that when you type “my balls”/“我的蛋” into Google/Baidu, the #1 suggestion is the same: “hurt”/“好疼”.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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How the Saudis are making it almost impossible to report on their war in Yemen

The conflict is not getting anything like the media attention it deserves.

This article has been co-authored by Ahmed Baider, a fixer based in Yemen's capital Sana’a, and Lizzie Porter, a freelance journalist based in Beirut who is still waiting for a chance to report from Yemen.

Ten thousand people have died. The world’s largest cholera epidemic is raging, with more than 530,000 suspected cases and 2,000 related deaths. Millions more people are starving. Yet the lack of press attention on Yemen’s conflict has led it to be described as the “forgotten war”.

The scant media coverage is not without reason, or wholly because the general public is too cold-hearted to care. It is very hard to get into Yemen. The risks for the few foreign journalists who gain access are significant. And the Saudi-led coalition waging war in the country is doing its best to make it difficult, if not impossible, to report from the area.

Working in Sana’a as a fixer for journalists since the start of the uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 has sometimes felt like the most difficult job in the world. When a Saudi-led coalition started bombing Yemen in support of its president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in March 2015, it became even harder.

With control of the airspace, last summer they closed Sana’a airport. The capital had been the main route into Yemen. Whether deliberately or coincidentally, in doing so, the coalition prevented press access.

The media blackout came to the fore last month, when the Saudi-led coalition turned away an extraordinary, non-commercial UN flight with three BBC journalists on board. The team – including experienced correspondent Orla Guerin – had all the necessary paperwork. Aviation sources told Reuters that the journalists’ presence was the reason the flight was not allowed to land.

The refusal to allow the press to enter Yemen by air forced them to find an alternative route into the country – a 13-hour sea crossing.

After the airport closure in August 2016, an immensely complex set of procedures was created for journalists travelling on the UN flights operating from Djibouti on the Horn of Africa into Sana’a. The level of paperwork required offered only a glimmer of hope that the media would be allowed to highlight the suffering in Yemen. Each journalist’s application required visas, permits, return ticket fees of $1,100 per person (later reduced to $250) and a great deal of bureaucracy.

But there were other issues, too: equipment that all journalists take with them to war zones as standard – flak jackets, helmets and satellite phones – were not allowed on the UN flights, increasing fears about operating in the country.

The new arrangement significantly increased the cost and time involved – two things that most media organisations are short of. A team of two would have to budget for several thousand dollars for a week-long reporting trip. This was limiting for even large media organisations with big budgets.

Still, the system worked. A few journalists started to come and cover the situation from the ground. Yemenis were happy to share their stories. On one assignment to villages on the west coast, people ran to talk to us and show us their malnourished children as soon as we arrived. It was obvious from the look in their eyes that they wanted to tell people what had been happening.

That changed after last October, when three or four large international media teams had reported from Yemen, broadcasting images of starving children and bombed-out homes to TVs around the world. The Saudi-led coalition began refusing to let journalists fly in with the UN. They said that the flights were for humanitarian workers only, or that the safety of journalists could not be guaranteed. Members of the press who had been preparing trips suddenly had their plans quashed. Time assigned to reporting the conflict had to be given to more accessible stories.

Over the next few months, media access was again opened up, only to be followed by U-turns and further paralysis. And when the Saudi-led coalition did grant access, it was only under certain, excruciating conditions.

As well as a press visa granted by the opposition authorities in the capital, from February this year, journalists have required a second visa granted by the Saudi-backed government in Aden.

It felt impossible. Why would they give press visas for journalists to visit opposition territory? The doubts were proved correct when trying to convince Hadi government officials to issue press access. The consular envoy in Cairo refused. A call to their team in London resulted in another “no”. 

This meant applying to the authorities in Aden for secondary visas for the tenacious journalists who hadn’t already been put off by the cost and access hurdles. One example of the petty requirements imposed was that a journalist’s visa could not be on paper: it had to be stamped into his or her passport. Of course, that added a week to the whole affair.

After months of media blockade, journalists were finally able to access Yemen again between March and May this year. At present, members of the media are officially allowed to travel on the UN flights. But how many more times journalists will be refused entry remains unknown. Not all crews will have the resources to make alternative arrangements to enter Yemen.

The New Statesman interviewed one French documentary producer who has reported from Yemen twice but who has not been able to access the country since 2015, despite multiple attempts.

Upon each refusal, the Saudi-led coalition told the journalist, “to take commercial flights – which didn’t exist…” he explained, requesting anonymity. “Saudi Arabia and its coalition are doing everything they can to discourage journalists as well as organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.”

He said that blocking media access was part of the Saudi-led coalition’s strategy to “bring [Yemen] to its knees in an atmosphere of silence and indifference.”

Access is not the only problem. Reporting in Yemen carries great risks. The British Foreign Office warns of a “very high threat of kidnap and unlawful detention from militia groups, armed tribes, criminals and terrorists”. It specifically mentions journalists as a group that could be targeted.

Editors are increasingly nervous about sending journalists into war zones where kidnap is a significant danger. The editorial green light for arranging assignments to Yemen is – understandably – ever harder to obtain.

Although they are willing to work with recognised press teams, the Houthis and Saleh loyalists have also been known to be suspicious of journalists.

“Even before the Saudis banned access to Yemen, it is important to remember that Yemen is one of the most difficult countries for journalists to access,” added the anonymous journalist.

The amount of press attention dedicated to Yemen simply does not reflect the extent of country’s suffering and political turmoil. Journalists’ rights groups, international organisations and governments need to step up pressure on Saudi Arabia to ease media access to the country.

The coalition last month proposed that the UN take control of Sana’a airport, which it refused. Whoever runs it, the hub must be opened, so that journalists can get in, and Yemenis desperately needing medical treatment abroad can get out.

Failing this, coupled with the extreme risks and costs of reporting, the world will never see the graves of 10,000 people. Yemenis will continue to die starving and invisible, in destroyed homes.