China’s Government Fakes Over 488 Million Social Media Posts, Study Shows

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China’s Government Fakes Over 488 Million Social Media Posts, Study Shows


Source: Social News Daily

The headlines probably comes as no surprise. A recent May 17th investigative paper has described how the Chinese government who has long been rumoured to hire as many as two million people to fabricate social media posts for strategic distraction. The study, led by Harvard University data scientist Gary King, co-authored by academics from Standford and University of California, takes a look at China’s ‘Fifty Cent Party’, described by the researchers as a “massive secretive operation”.

‘Fifty Cent Party’ refers to the government employees who were believed to be paid 50 Chinese cents (US$0.08) by the government for each social media comment posted with pro-government sentiments, although there is no evidence from the study suggesting that the fabricated posts were being paid-for, but rather written by government employees who were contributing as part of their job responsibilities. 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 even at courts.

Additionally, while the study highlights how far China’s authorities are willing to go to closely monitor, censor and control their news, the paper in fact also suggests that the fabricated posts are shying away from arguments and controversial issues. The estimated 488 million fabricated social media posts per year are instead speculated to have the goal to “regularly distract the public and change the subject” from any policy-related issues, posted during times of social unrest, a major political event, or when a controversial issue is being widely debated. Many of the posts do not attempt to rebut or argue with critical commenters, the researchers proclaimed.

“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… Letting an argument die, or changing the subject, usually works much better than picking an argument and getting someone’s back up,” the paper said.

Approximately half of the posts appear as posts and comments on government websites, while the other half are injected into the streams of 80 billion commercial social media posts via sites such as Baidu and Weibo.

The research team based their paper primarily from documents and spreadsheets leaked in 2013 and 2014 archives in the trove of emails sent 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 leaked posts from the archives inluded a mix of multiple forms of email formats, programs and attachments. This required the research team to crack the multiple formats and deploy automated text analysis and extraction by using their own customised computer code, with which they successfully extracted 2,341 e-mails of which more than half contained a Fifty Cent post, and 43,797 Fifty Cent Party posts used to identify the style of other propaganda posts inside the dispatches. According to CNN, the academics used that information to extrapolate from that sample in an effort to estimate the true scale of official activity on social media sites, and the number of government-fabricated posts that could be posted nationwide. The emails were said to include messages from workers claiming credit for carrying out their ‘Fifty Cent’ assignments, with posts typically spiking during periods of social unrests gaining momentum, an indication that they had “a high level of coordination on the part of the government”.

The documents leaked had disclosed the names and online pseudonyms of over two million people employed by the Chinese authorities to write deceptive posts on their behalf in the stream of real social media posts, as if they were the genuine opinions of ordinary people. The research team were able to identify Fifty Centers by cross referencing names from leaked emails with online social media profiles. They found the name, contact information, and even photographs of many of the authors although they chose not to disclose them.

As told by Bloomberg, the research team deduced the rules for the messages; Firstly, it was crucial for Fifty Cent workers to not engage in controversial issues. Secondly, it was part of their duty to stop discussion about potential collective or street protests by active distraction. While allowing some dissent serves the purpose of letting the regime gauge public opinion on local leaders, complete censorship would only serve 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”.

Read the research paper here.



[1] Bloomberg

[2] BBC

[3] CNN

[4] Sky News

[5] Digital Trends

[6] China File

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