China’s government fabricates about 488 million social media comments a year -- nearly the same as one day of Twitter’s total global volume -- in a massive effort to distract its citizens from bad news and sensitive political debates, according to a study.
Three scholars led by Gary King, a political scientist at Harvard University who specializes in using quantitative data to analyze public policy, ran the first systematic study of China’s online propaganda workers, known as the Fifty Cent Party because they are popularly believed to be paid by the government 50 Chinese cents for every social media post.
Contrary to popular perception inside China, the Fifty Cent Party avoids engaging in debates with critics and doesn’t make fun of foreign governments. Instead, it mostly works to distract public attention away from hot topics by highlighting the positive, cheering the state, symbols of the regime, or the Communist Party’s revolutionary past.
"In retrospect, this makes a lot of sense -- stopping an argument is best done by distraction and changing the subject rather than more argument -- but this had previously been unknown,” King said in an e-mail.
Although those who post comments are often rumored to be ordinary citizens, the researchers were surprised to find that nearly all the posts were written by workers at government agencies including tax and human resource departments, and at courts. The researchers said they found no evidence that people were paid for the posts, adding the work was probably part of the employees’ job responsibilities. Fifty Cent Party is a derogatory term since it implies people are bought off cheaply.
About half of the positive messages appear on government websites, and the rest are injected into the 80 billion social media posts that enter China’s Internet. That means one of every 178 social media posts on China’s micro blogs is made up by the government, the researchers said. The sites affected include those run by Tencent Holdings Ltd., Sina Corp. and Baidu Inc.
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The team based their findings on leaked archives of 2013 and 2014 e-mails from the Internet Propaganda Office of Zhanggong, a county-level district of nearly half a million people in Ganzhou City, in Jiangxi, a province in southeast China. The archive included a mix of multiple e-mail formats, programs and attachments that required King and his team to build customized computer code to crack the archive and deploy automated text analysis and extraction.
They pulled out 2,341 e-mails of which more than half contained a Fifty Cent post, totaling 43,797 posts that formed a benchmark for identifying other propaganda posts. They were able to identify Fifty Centers by cross referencing names from leaked e-mails with online social media profiles.
They found the name, contact information, and even photographs of many of the authors but chose not to disclose them because it didn’t serve an academic purpose, they said.
The timing of the posts showed coordinated control. Typically, the Fifty Cent Party workers would go into action right after some kind of social unrest or protest and try to distract public opinion with a wave of social media that researchers said was “interesting, but innocuous and unrelated topic.”
For example, they found 1,100 posts touting the China Dream, local economic development following the July 2013 riots in Xinjiang, or pegged to senior politicians’ gatherings in Beijing.
“Many revolutionary martyrs fought bravely to create the blessed life we have today! Respect to these heroes,” read one post cited in the study.
People also criticized the West and drew favorable comparisons to China.
“On one hand, the US publicly asserts that if China does not perish the West will wither; on the other it tells the Chinese people: your government is problematic, you have to overthrow it so you can live better lives than you do today. I can ask, is there a more ridiculous and contradictory logic than this?” another poster wrote.
After analyzing the database they created from the leaked accounts, researchers used machine learning to find other Fifty Cent posts in other parts of China. Volunteers in China set up Weibo micro blog accounts to try to contact Fifty Centers to verify if they worked for the government.
“Of course, the difficulties of interpreting these answers is complicated by the fact that our survey respondents are conducting surreptitious operations on behalf of the Chinese government designed to fool users of social media into thinking that they are ordinary citizens,” the researchers said in their paper, “and we are asking them about this very activity.”
They researchers said they deduced the rules for the messages: First, don’t engage in controversial issues. Second, stop discussion about potential collective or street protests by active distraction. Allowing some dissent serves the purpose of letting the regime gauge public opinion on local leaders, they concluded, while complete censorship only serves to stir up anger.
“The main threat perceived by the Chinese regime in the modern era is not military attacks from foreign enemies but rather uprisings from their own people,” they said.
Revealing a paternalistic approach, the guiding policy of China’s Fifty Cent Party appears to be that distraction is better than conflict. “Letting an argument die, or changing the subject, usually works much better than picking an argument and getting someone’s back up (as new parents recognize fast),” they wrote.