A new study by researchers at Harvard University estimates that Chinese government employees fabricate 488 million social media posts each year.
As the first rigorous analysis of China’s online propaganda machine, the team found that the “Fifty Cent Party” or Wumao Dang—a derogatory term used to describe contract workers popularly believed to be making fifty cents per post—largely consists of state employees dedicated to other full-time duties.
Workers for a wide range of public agencies including human resource departments, county courts, and local tax bureaus publish the fake posts in addition to their regular duties, according to the study. The authors did not discover any evidence that the employees were paid directly for the comments they wrote and posted.
Contrary to previous assumptions, researchers Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts concluded that China’s propaganda strategy on social media aims to distract and divert online discourse away from sensitive topics rather than directly engaging in heated debates with commenters.
The investigators used data from an email archive leaked in December 2014 from the Internet Propaganda Office of Zhanggong, a district of Ganzhou City in Jiangxi province; the information was disclosed by an anonymous blogger, “Xiaolan.” The released files included all of the emails sent to, and some from, the Internet Propaganda Office email account in 2013 and 2014—roughly 43,000 emails in total.
Using sophisticated data analyses methods, the authors successfully identified the mysterious creators of the posts and uncovered the content attributed to them. The team then employed machine learning techniques to extrapolate the results from the leaked county data. Drawing upon their findings they were able to make estimates of the magnitude of government-created comments on China’s internet.
According to their approximations one of every 178 social media posts is fabricated by the government. The study found roughly half of the false comments are posted on government websites while the rest are published on the more than 80 billion social media posts on China’s internet.
The researchers found that “most of the posts involve cheerleading for China, the revolutionary history of the Communist Party, or other symbols of the regime.”
“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 to Bloomberg.
The timing of the posts in the sample from Ganzhou City was also noteworthy. The highest volumes of fake comments were made during major political holidays or periods of social upheaval.
On Tomb Sweeping Day, the researchers found over 18,000 posts focusing on “veterans, martyrs, how glorious or heroic they are and how they sacrificed for China.”
Over 1,800 posts lauded the “China Dream,” a public campaign by President Xi Jinping focusing on the rise of China in global eminence, following the April 2013 People’s Daily article instructing people to carry out the propaganda drive.
After the Shanshan riots of Xinjiang, the authors found nearly 1,100 social media posts diverting attention away from the government-labelled “terrorist incident” to matters related to “local economic development.”
As the New York Times’ Paul Mozer reported: “Posts are usually written in bursts around politically sensitive events, like protests or key national political events, and are often intended to distract the public from bad news.”
It is well-known that the Beijing restricts and modifies the search results of topics considered politically sensitive through its Great Firewall. Popular foreign websites and social media platforms are also banned by the Party including Google, Facebook, and Twitter. Recently, along with China’s emphasis on cyber sovereignty, the government has been tightening its already-firm grip on information available to the public and pushing the Chinese Communist Party’s platform.
One result of the paper is clear: the Chinese government continues to exert a heavy, guiding hand in online forums.