The Chinese government fabricates and posts about 448 million social media comments per year, a new study suggests. The goal behind the secret operation is apparently to distract people from bad news and political debates.
Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Margaret E Roberts conducted their systematic study — How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged
Argument — of internet propaganda workers, who are known as the Fifty Cent party. The party workers are rumoured to receive a payment of 50 Chinese cents by the government for each social media posting.
The Fifty Cent party does not usually engage in debates with critics or make fun of foreign governments. But they distract public attention from important topics with their posts that involve cheerleading for China, the Communist Party or other symbols of the regime.
These party workers begin their action immediately after some social unrest and then try to distract the opinion of the people with social media posts. There were a total of 1,100 posts about China Dream and local development soon after the Shanshan riots in Xinjiang, in July 2013.
In an email statement issued to Bloomberg, Gary King said, "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."
The researchers found out that almost all of the posts were by workers at government agencies such as tax and human resource departments and courts. The researchers say they did not find any evidence that the people were getting paid for their social media posts and say this was possibly a part of their job responsibilities.
The study reveals 52.7% of these positive posts appear on government websites and the rest of the 212 million posts are inserted into approximately 80 billion social media posts. A large proportion of comments on government websites and about one in every 178 social media posts on commercial websites are fabricated by the government, says the study. The sites that are affected by the social media posts are run by Tencent Holdings, Sina and Baidu.
The research team based their findings on an archive of emails leaked from the Internet Propaganda Office of Zhanggong, which is a district of Ganzhou City in Jiangxi province. The emails contained explicit details of the work of numerous members of the Fifty Cent Group. The team claims to have identified 2,341 emails, nearly half of which contained a Fifty Cent post, with the total number of posts being 43,797.
The researchers even used machine learning to find out Fifty Cent posts in other parts of China. "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 and we are asking them about this very activity," noted the researchers in their paper.