China's Response To Study Confirms It Uses 'Strategic Distraction' To Prevent Collective Action. Sound Familiar?

from the oh,-look,-a-squirrel dept

Last May, Techdirt wrote about a draft version of a study of how China deploys its vast “50 Cent Party” propagandists — named for the amount of money they are supposedly paid for every post — to control discourse online. The final version of the paper, entitled “How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument,” has now appeared, and it includes a fascinating appendix:

We describe here a rare tacit confirmation of the existence of the 50c party, as well as an apparent admission to the accuracy of our leaked archive and the veracity of our empirical results, all unexpectedly offered by the Chinese government in response to our work.

As the Appendix explains, the draft version of the paper received a huge amount of international attention when it was released last year. Most significantly, Global Times, a newspaper published by the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s primary mouthpiece, wrote an editorial on the study. Although this isn’t an official statement from the Chinese authorities, the Appendix points out that it is reasonable to interpret it as a close approximation to their views. Along the way, it provides some invaluable insights into the online world in China. For example, by comparing public comments on the editorial with those found elsewhere on Chinese social media, the researchers were able to judge how the Chinese people viewed the use of “strategic distraction” to control online discussions:

Our estimates indicate that 82% of the comments on the paper’s website which expressed an opinion supported China’s system of public opinion guidance (with 15% critical). Yet, among the likely broader audience found on Weibo [China’s home-grown version of Twitter], only 30% were supportive (with 63% critical)

That contradicts a central claim of the editorial, which is that “Chinese society is generally in agreement regarding the necessity of ‘public opinion guidance’.” The researchers also note that indirectly the editorial confirms four important claims they made in their original paper.

First, although the Global Times has English and Chinese editions, with many articles published in both languages, the editorial about our paper was published only in Chinese. That is, even though it objected to how the story was covered in the international press, the CCP was primarily addressing its own people. This seems to be a regular strategy of the regime and is consistent with our interpretation of their main perceived threats being their own people rather than Western powers.

Moreover, not only did the editorial not deny that the 50 Cent Army operated on a massive scale — probably impossible, since Chinese citizens know full well it exists — it took no issue with any of the conclusions drawn by the researchers. As the latter wrote:

We (inadvertently) asked the Chinese government whether they agreed with our results, and they effectively concurred. Although social scientists often conduct interviews of individual public officials, we are grateful for the unusual, if not unprecedented, chance to pose questions to an organ of the Chinese government and have it respond, for all practical purposes, as a government, or at least in a way that represents it.

However, arguably the most important point is the following:

In the editorial, the government also acknowledges that the purpose of public opinion guidance is to constrain or stop the spread of “hot button issues” that go viral on-line or “grassroots social issues” that have collective action potential. This also confirms a central point of our work.

When Techdirt first wrote about this work last year, it was undoubtedly interesting, and added to our knowledge of how governments flood the Internet with false information. But in the wake of the events of the last few days, during which the White House has disseminated what it calls “alternative facts,” and “collective action” has emerged as a key political response, it has acquired a heightened relevance.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and +glynmoody on Google+

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Comments on “China's Response To Study Confirms It Uses 'Strategic Distraction' To Prevent Collective Action. Sound Familiar?”

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Vidiot (profile) says:

Hey, look over there... a shiny thing!

Meanwhile, in the US… “strategic distractions” initiated in the Executive branch, like, say, inauguration attendance photos or bogus voter fraud claims, prevent collective action against a neocon Congress which is quietly inverting laws and policies to suit its agenda.

Aren’t the Chinese devious?

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Hey, look over there... a shiny thing!

“Neocon” is what we would have had with Clinton, a continuation of Obama’s policies. What we’ve actually got is Fascism and anarcho-capitalism. Right and alt-right.

The neocons were the more acceptable face of the GOP, not that I particularly liked them — “alternative facts” were predated by Karl Rove’s insistence that they could create their own reality — but they are to the left of what we’ve got now. That ought to scare you.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Not really, there are a lot of kool-aid drinkers in the world. I have found that if you just pay the right kind of lip service to someones ideals they roll over for you to bet their tummies. You really mess them up and they still come back for a petting.

I have two excellent examples for you… call the Democrats and Republicans. They pay a lot of lip service to their voters and those suckers buy it almost every time.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

otoh, refraining from the daily beatings and executions might encourage some cooperation amongst the general population.

In addition, if our benevolent overlords were to say … stop all their draconian bullshit, we might stand a chance of not wiping our selves off the face of the planet. But that will not happen anytime soon will it … better get back to building that bomb shelter you will not be able to use.

Chryss (profile) says:

It certainly would explain why the majority of comments I see on mainstream sites these days contain:

A. It’s Obama’s fault/he’s the evil one/etc!
B. It’s Clinton’s (either one or both) fault/(s)he’s the evil one/etc!
C. Shut up libtard/special snowflake/etc! You lost! Get over it!
D. Trump’s done more in a week than Obama did in 8 years!
E. Fake news!
F. We’re making America great again!
G. All of the above!

Maybe it’s time to fight fire with fire here in the U.S. and start our own comment army.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Maybe it’s time to fight fire with fire here in the U.S. and start our own comment army.

I thought you/we already had!

You can tell when reason has gone out the window however when the name calling starts.

The right and left each have their own name calling vocabulary.

My problem is that I don’t agree wholeheartedly with either side and sometimes you have to swallow your distaste and do something against your normal instincts.

For example I am ashamed to say it now but I once voted for a Ukip candidate in a euro election.

On that occasion the issues of sound copyright extension and software patents were up for debate and I had received a very unsatisfactory answer to a letter that I sent to the sitting (LibDem) MEP. Ukip on the otherhand had made it clear that they would vote against at least one of these – and since they really couldn’t do much damage on other matters in the European Parliament I felt that was the right thing to do.

The one thing that amuses me now is the realisation that – thanks to Brexit they are likely to lose all parl;iamentary representation over the next few years!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“sometimes you have to swallow your distaste and do something against your normal instincts.”

No I don’t.
Is this donnies latest Executive Order?

What I am really looking forward to are the secret executive orders, you will not know about them (untill it’s too late) and therefore no protests – brillaint!!!

Anonymous Coward says:

I distinctly remember this one time I was on on a history forum.
Someone asked a question about Chinese History (something about the Han Dynasty). I remember a couple of people gave good, quality answers.

The thread lasted about 5 replies before an obvious shill came in throwing a wall of party lines and ended with something along the lines of “a history question isn’t worth your life”.

At that point I laughed so hard I almost fell of my chair.
Obviously Chinese people don’t get to laugh it off.

Anonymous Coward says:

Since the insane morons took power and eventually will destroy my retirement (and everyone else’s), I think I might join the 50 cent brigade. I will do it for 75 cents per post, my posts will full of sarcasm. They are incapable of recognizing it while others will get a few laughs and I can supplement my future non existent social security that was stolen by assholes.

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