For years, the Chinese government has been widely suspected of hiring thousands of paid commenters using fabricated accounts to argue in favor of the government on social media sites.
This presumed army of trolls is dubbed the "50 Cent Party," because of the rumored rate of pay per post – 50 cents in Chinese Yuan, or about $0.08.
But new research finds that those presumptions are inaccurate. Actually, the Chinese government's use of fabricated posts is "way more sophisticated than anybody realized," Harvard professor Gary King tells The Two-Way.
King and two other researchers, Jennifer Pan and Margaret E. Roberts, analyzed a set of leaked emails from an Internet Propaganda Office in Zhanggong, which is in southern China.
First, they found the commenters are actually government employees "who basically have one extra job to do," rather than ordinary people working for a bit of extra cash, King says. In fact, the researchers say, "no evidence exists that the authors of [50 Cent] posts are even paid extra for their work."
They estimate that the Chinese government fabricates about 488 million social media posts each year.
Second, they found the commentators aren't arguing with government critics. They're trying to distract them, in highly focused bursts, at times of controversy or planned collective action. As King says:
"Arguments don't end because somebody has a better argument. So if the Chinese government's point is to stop discussion about a collective action event, whatever it is, or critical events of the government, arguing with people is an extremely ineffective way of doing it."
He adds: "If you're having an argument with somebody, and you want to end it, a much better approach than to argue with them is to say, 'Let's get ice cream.' Or, 'Look at that thing out the window.'"
The research paper provides a few examples of these "cheerleading" posts meant to distract. They praise China in general, rather than a specific political figure:
- "Many revolutionary martyrs fought bravely to create the blessed life we have today! Respect to these heroes."
- "Respect to all the people who have greatly contributed to the prosperity and success of the Chinese civilization! The heroes of the people are immortal."
- "We all have to work harder, to rely on ourselves, to take the initiative to move forward."
- "[If] everyone can live good lives, then the China Dream has been realized!"
The researchers estimate that about one in every 178 comments on Chinese social media sites is fabricated by the government. But as King points out, it's not just one in every 178 posts, which would be quite ineffective – like "shouting into the wind," he says. "Instead, they focus the effort at specific bursts at specific times." Outside the bursts, there's very little activity, the researchers say.
For example: As deadly riots were unfolding in the western region of Xinjiang in 2013, the researchers say the leaked government emails report a burst of hundreds of fabricated posts praising local economic development and the "Chinese Dream" – a concept that, as NPR reported, "encompasses national pride, an improvement of the standard of living and military modernization."
They wanted to extend their findings from Zhanggong to the entire country. Examining the patterns from Zhanggong, the researchers developed an algorithm to predict which posts and users were from the so-called 50 Cent Party.
And then, as King says, they "did something a little outrageous" — they simply asked the people they predicted were 50 Cent Party whether they were, with this question:
"I saw your comment, it's really inspiring, I want to ask, do you have any public opinion guidance management, or online commenting experience?"
They compared their responses with those of people from Zhanggong they knew were from the 50 Cent Party because of the leaked email trove. The two groups said "Yes" at almost exactly the same rate — just under 60 percent.
More generally, China has an extensive system of internet controls, sometimes dubbed the "Great Firewall." Its internet censorship was recently deemed a trade barrier by the U.S.
"Outright blocking of websites appears to have worsened over the past year, with eight of the top 25 most trafficked global sites now blocked in China," the U.S. Trade Representative said in a report released in April, according to Reuters. "Over the past decade, China's filtering of cross-border internet traffic has posed a significant burden to foreign suppliers, hurting both internet sites themselves, and users who often depend on them for their business."
As Reuters reports, Chinese officials say "web controls help maintain social stability and national security in the face of threats such as terrorism."