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How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument

Authors: Gary King, Jennifer Pan, Margaret E. Roberts

American Political Science Review, 14 January 2017


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. Many academics, and most journalists and activists, claim that these so-called “50c party” posts vociferously argue for the government’s side in political and policy debates. As we show, this is also true of the vast majority of posts openly accused on social media of being 50c. 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 448 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.

This paper follows up on our articles in Science, “Reverse-Engineering Censorship In China: Randomized Experimentation And Participant Observation”, and the American Political Science Review, “How Censorship In China Allows Government Criticism But Silences Collective Expression”.

Concluding Remarks

Academics and policymakers have long been focused on contested physical spaces, over which military wars have been or might be fought. For example, in the South China Sea, the Chinese regime is presently building artificial islands and the US is conducting military exercises, both highly expensive shows of power. As important as this focus may be, we think scholars and policymakers should focus considerably more effort on the Chinese Internet and its information environment, which is a contested virtual space, one that may well be more important than many contested physical spaces. The relationship between the government and the people is defined in this space and so the world has a great interest in what goes on there. We think considerably more resources and research should be devoted to this area. Whatever the appropriate relationship between governments and their people, a reasonable position is that it be open and known. This is an area were academic researchers can help. By devoting great effort, they can open up this knowledge to the world. We hope others follow up the research we report on here.

More specifically, the vast majority of journalists, activists, participants in social media, as well as some scholars have, until now, argued that the massive 50c party is devoted to engaging in argument that defends the regime, its leaders, and their policies. Our evidence indicates the opposite — that the 50c party engages in almost no argument of any kind and is instead devoted primarily to cheerleading for the state, symbols of the regime, or the revolutionary history of the Communist Party. We interpret these activities as the regime’s effort at strategic distraction from collective action, grievances, or general negativity, etc.

It also appears that the 50c party is mostly composed of government employees contributing part time outside their regular jobs, not, as has been claimed, ordinary citizens paid piecemeal for their work. This, nevertheless, is still an enormous workforce that, we estimate, produces 448 million 50c posts per year. Their effectiveness appears maximized by the effort we found of them concentrating the posts into spikes at appropriate times, and by directing about half of the posts to comments on government web sites.

Read the full paper at https://maritimearchives.files.wordpress.com/2017/01/how-the-chinese-government-fabricates-social-media-posts-for-strategic-distraction-not-engaged-argument.pdf

About the authors:

Gary King is an Albert J. Weatherhead III University Professor from Institute for Quantitative Social Science, 1737 Cambridge Street, Harvard University, Cambridge MA 02138; GaryKing.org, King@Harvard.edu, (617) 500-7570.

Jennifer Pan is an Assistant Professor from Department of Communication, 450 Serra Mall, Building 120, Stanford University, Stanford CA 94304; http://people.fas.harvard.edu/ jjpan/, (917) 740-5726.

Margaret E. Roberts is an Assistant Professor from Department of Political Science, University of California, San Diego, Social Sciences Building 301, 9500 Gilman Drive, #0521, La Jolla, CA 92093-0521, meroberts@ucsd.edu, MargaretRoberts.net.

Related article:

The PLA’s Latest Strategic Thinking on the Three Warfares: https://seasresearch.wordpress.com/2016/08/25/the-plas-latest-strategic-thinking-on-the-three-warfares/


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