The Chinese government is responsible for almost half a billion fabricated social media posts each year, Harvard researchers have estimated—while suggesting that the evidence contradicts conventional wisdom about the purpose of this program.
The researchers—Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret Roberts—on Thursday published what they said was the first empirical analysis of how Chinese authorities manipulate social media for propaganda purposes.
According to them, the main purpose of these posts, published on popular platforms such as Sina Weibo, is not to argue with critics of the Communist regime or local officials, but rather to distract people from controversial topics.
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It's long been known that hundreds of thousands of people in an organization known as the "50c Party" regularly churn out bogus posts—the name is a reference to their rumored payments per post. This so-called astroturfing operation is the flip side to China's censorship regime, where criticism of leaders and their policies is allowed, but censors stamp out any moves toward collective action.
The Harvard researchers based their findings on analysis of leaked emails from the "Internet Propaganda Office of Zhanggong, a district of Ganzhou City in Jiangxi province," which closely detailed local 50c Party activities. Extrapolating from what they found in that hacked cache, the researchers estimated that the government's overall astroturfing operations churn out around 488 million posts each year.
Importantly, they found no examples of 50c posts in the leaked cache that taunted foreign countries or argued with others, as many assume these posts do.
Our results indicate that the prevailing view of the 50c Party is largely incorrect. We show that almost none of the Chinese government’s 50c Party posts engage in debate and argument of any kind. They do not step up to defend the government, its leaders, and their policies from criticism, no matter how vitriolic; indeed, they seem to avoid controversial issues entirely. Instead, most of these posts are about cheerleading and positive discussions…a strategy designed to actively distract and redirect public attention from ongoing criticism, other grievances, or collective action.
For example, following the Shanshan riots of mid-2013, the 50c Party crafted hundreds of posts about Xi Jinping's "China Dream" ideals and local economic development.
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"Distraction is a clever strategy in information control in that an argument in almost any human discussion is rarely an effective way to put an end to an opposing argument," the researchers wrote. "Letting an argument die, or changing the subject, usually works much better than picking an argument and getting someone’s back up."