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China’s government workers fabricate 488 million social media posts a year

BEIJING — China heavily censors its Internet, limiting what its people can see or say online to channels that the government can control.

Apart from employing the Internet-filtering and blocking tool known as the Great Firewall, the Chinese government also uses its employees to steer discussions on social media. PHOTO: REUTERS

Apart from employing the Internet-filtering and blocking tool known as the Great Firewall, the Chinese government also uses its employees to steer discussions on social media. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING — China heavily censors its Internet, limiting what its people can see or say online to channels that the government can control.

But China’s managing of its message does not end there. It also taps untold masses of people to cheer for its side on online message boards and social media. The common belief that they are paid 50 cents a post leads people in China to call them the Fifty Cent Party.

A new study says those people are closer to the government than previously thought. The study, from researchers at Harvard University, says the legions of online commenters are not all freelancers paid by the post. In fact, it says that most are government employees, preaching the principles of the Chinese Communist Party on social media while carrying out their jobs in the local tax bureau or at a county government office.

They are also incredibly prolific. The study, released this week by Mr Gary King, Ms Jennifer Pan and Ms Margaret Roberts, estimates that the Chinese government each year fabricates and posts about 488 million social media posts in China, or about one for every 178 social media posts on Chinese commercial sites. Posts are usually written in bursts around politically sensitive events, such as protests or key national political events, and are often intended to distract the public from bad news.

The study could shed light on an active but shadowy part of China’s complex system of tools used to guide online public opinion at home. Its best-known tool is the Great Firewall, the sophisticated system of Internet filters and blocks that prevents people in China from accessing Facebook, Twitter and Google, as well as foreign media sources such as The New York Times.

But it has others that depend on China’s manpower and spending to manage. Prodding people to write comments online represents the Chinese Communist Party’s longstanding effort to channel public opinion, said Mr David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong. “The whole premise being that the party needs to be more savvy and clever in directing the agenda,” he said.

China’s push to polish its image at home and abroad has gained new traction under President Xi Jinping. Domestically, China has tightened Internet restrictions and limited criticism. It has also raised Mr Xi’s profile online and aimed its digital propaganda efforts at foreign as well as domestic audiences.

Chinese propaganda outlets, such as the Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper, are now fixtures on social media services banned in China such as Facebook and Twitter.

Domestically, the report found that Beijing primarily sought to guide public opinion by having commenters write posts designed to “regularly distract the public and change the subject” rather than rebut arguments against the government line.

“Distraction is a clever 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,” it said.

The effects of this strategy are amplified by highly coordinated campaigns in which bursts of messages are posted around news or events as they go viral, according to the report.

Based on a trove of leaked emails from a local Internet propaganda office in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangxi in 2013 and 2014, the report examined 43,000 confirmed government-sponsored posts and cited a number of examples of government-backed comment campaigns.

In one example, following a riot in the western region of Xinjiang in 2013, the Internet propaganda office reported posting hundreds of comments about local economic development and the China Dream, one of Mr Xi’s propaganda initiatives emphasising China’s rising global power.

The study also tracked the sources of almost all of the 43,000 posts back to groups and individuals from 200 different government agencies. While 20 per cent came from the district Internet propaganda office, other comments came from local township governments and even further afield, from people in the district sports bureau and the district human resources bureau. The fact that most commenters are employed by the government likely allows for quick and efficient coordination, according to the report.

The authors theorised that the government sees its commenters as a friendlier method of opinion guidance than censorship, which frustrates many users. Commenters have “the additional advantage of enabling the government to actively control opinion without having to censor as much as they might otherwise”.

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