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China caught astroturfing social networks

Harvard study blames state groups for 488m comments

By Shaun Nichols, 20 May 2016

A new study claims to have unmasked a state-sponsored social media campaign in China that's responsible for nearly a half-billion social media comments.

The report [PDF] from Harvard University suggests that a group of users acting at the behest of the Chinese government uses the comments to influence discussion of topics that could be critical of the state.

"We estimate that the government fabricates and posts about 488 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," say report authors Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret Roberts.

"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."

The practice, known as "astroturfing," has long been a favored tactic for marketing and public relations campaigns to sway discussions online. The Chinese government, with large numbers of users at its disposal, seems to have taken this strategy to another level, the researchers say.

The study notes how the group, known as the "50 cent Party" – a reference to the reported per-post stipend the users receive from the government – strategically places strings of posts supporting the government within social media services used in China. Those posts, in turn, act as an extension of China's propaganda operations by distracting from critical posts and thwarting organizing efforts not backed by the state.

The researchers believe that the 50 cent Party members are not actually employed full-time to target online discussions, but rather engage in the activities outside of their day-jobs as employees in other government organizations.

The findings, the study concludes, contradict previously-held notions that online censorship in China is conducted directly through targeting and removing content that is critical of the state. Rather, the researchers find, the government is using more subtle tactics to undermine those who would criticize its policies.

"Distraction is a clever and useful strategy in information control, in that an argument in almost any human discussion is rarely an effective way to put an end to an opposing argument," the researchers note.

"Letting an argument die, or changing the subject, usually works much better than picking an argument and getting someone's back up (as new parents recognize fast)." ®

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