How The Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts For Strategic Distraction, Not Engaged Argument

How The Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts For Strategic Distraction, Not Engaged Argument see a good background to this study by Bloomberg News 

Gary King, Jennifer Pan, Margaret E. Roberts

May 19, 2016


The Chinese government has long been suspected of hiring as many as 2,000,000 people to surreptitiously insert huge numbers of pseudonymous and other deceptive writings into the stream of real social media posts, as if they were the genuine opinions of ordinary people. Almost all scholars, activists, journalists, and participants in social media claim these so-called “Fifty Cent Party” posts argue vociferously for the government’s side in political and policy debates. Yet, almost no systematic empirical evidence exists for this claim, or, more importantly, for the Chinese regime’s strategic objective in pursuing this activity. In the first large scale empirical analysis of this operation, we show how to identify the secretive authors of these posts, the posts written by them, and their content. We estimate that the government fabricates and posts about 488 million social media comments a year. In contrast to prior claims, we show that the Chinese regime’s strategy is to avoid arguing with skeptics of the party and the government, and to not even discuss controversial issues. We infer that the goal of this massive secretive operation is instead to regularly distract the public and change the subject, as most of the these posts involve cheerleading for China, the revolutionary history of the Communist Party, or other symbols of the regime. We discuss how these results fit with what is known about the Chinese censorship program, and suggest how they may change our broader theoretical understanding of “common knowledge” and information control in authoritarian regimes.

How The Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts For Strategic Distraction, Not Engaged Argument – Introduction

Social media in China appears as vibrant and extensive as in any Western country, with more than 1,300 social media companies and websites, and millions of posts authored every day by people all over the country. At the same time, the Chinese regime imposes extensive controls over of the entire system. Which social media companies are prevented from operating in China is easy to see (the so-called “Great Firewall of China”), and the scholarly literature now offers considerable evidence on how and why they censor certain individual social media posts that have appeared on the web or filter them out before appearing. In both cases, the censorship apparatus allows criticism of the regime, its officials, and their policies (which can be useful information for the central government in managing local leaders) but stops discussions that can generate collective action on the ground (King, Pan and Roberts, 2013, 2014).

According to numerous speculations by scholars, activists, journalists, officials in other governments, and participants in social media, the Chinese regime also conducts “astroturfing,” or what we might call “reverse censorship,” surreptitiously posting large numbers of fabricated social media comments, as if they were the genuine opinions of ordinary Chinese people. The people hired for this purpose are known formally as “Internet commentators”  but more widely as “50c party” members, so-called because they are rumored to be paid 50 cents (5 jiao, or about US$0.08) to write and post each comment. (Of course, political parties do not exist in China and so, despite the name, the “50c party” is not a political party.)

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The nearly unanimous view of those who have written about this subject is that 50c party propaganda argues with and debates against those who criticize the government, its leaders, and their policies. (This was our view as well, prior to the research reported here.) In Section 2, we systematically summarize these views, including a quantitative analysis of a body of social media posts accused of being written by 50c party members. We show that all these sources agree on the purpose of the 50c party. However, until now no method has existed for detecting 50c party members, which posts they write, their content, or why they write them, and so the best anyone could do was to base these claims on intuition, logic, a small number of available anecdotes, rumors, and leaked government directives.

In this paper, we offer the first systematic empirical evidence for the content of 50c party posts and the government’s strategic objectives.1 We begin by analyzing an archive of emails leaked from the Internet Propaganda Office of Zhanggong, a district of Ganzhou City in Jiangxi province (Section 3). These emails give explicit details of the work of numerous 50c accounts in this district. Although in the public domain and reported on in the press (e.g., Henochowicz, 2014; Sonnad, 2014), the structure of this archive is complicated, too large to understand by traditional qualitative methods, and in formats (and attachments) far too diverse to make standard methods of automation feasible; as such, it has never before been systematically analyzed, and little of it has been explored. We have developed an approach to analyze this data set and, from it, have extracted more than 43,000 known 50c party posts and their authors.

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