Study: One Out Of Every 178 Posts To Chinese Social Media Is Government Propaganda

from the disinformation-nation dept

In Russia, we've talked about how Vladimir Putin employs a massive army of Internet trolls to ridicule and shout down political opponents and critics. In China, the government's tactics are notably different. According to a new study out of Harvard (pdf), the Chinese government posts about 488 million fake social media comments -- or roughly one day of Twitter's total global volume -- each year. In China, these propagandists have historically been dubbed the "50 Cent Party," because it was generally believed they were paid 50 Chinese cents for every social media post.

It's the first study of its kind, only made possible after a blogger by the name of "Xiaolan" leaked an archive of all 2013 and 2014 emails to and from the Zhanggong district's Internet Propaganda Office. Journalists had previously written news articles about the leaks, but the researchers in this case crafted custom code to thoroughly dissect and identify the posts across a wide variety of formats and track them to verified government accounts, leading researchers to conclude that an amazing one out of every 178 posts to Chinese social media was government propaganda.

But unlike Russia's tendency to pay ordinary citizens to parrot propaganda (which is ultimately what wound up exposing the practice), the study found that many of China's social media propagandists are government workers, for whom propaganda was just part of their overall job duties at existing agencies:
"Although those who post comments are often rumored to be ordinary citizens, the researchers were surprised to find that nearly all the posts were written by workers at government agencies including tax and human resource departments, and at courts. The researchers said they found no evidence that people were paid for the posts, adding the work was probably part of the employees’ job responsibilities. Fifty Cent Party is a derogatory term since it implies people are bought off cheaply."
And whereas Russia's online propaganda efforts tend to involve personally attacking critics, Chinese propaganda takes a notably different tack -- focusing more on feel-good nationalism and reminders of the Communist Party’s revolutionary past. Like any government, the study highlights that China's biggest fear isn't from abroad -- but the country's own people -- a threat best handled with distraction, not direct confrontation:
"The main threat perceived by the Chinese regime in the modern era is not military attacks from foreign enemies but rather uprisings from their own people,” they said. Revealing a paternalistic approach, the guiding policy of China’s Fifty Cent Party appears to be that distraction is better than conflict. “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),” they wrote.
Granted, distraction certainly isn't a new concept, and it only takes about five minutes watching U.S. cable news to realize we're pretty damn good at it here in the States. In fact, we're so good at distracting ourselves from issues of substance that it seems unlikely that the United States government would even need to spend money on an institutional-grade social media disinformation effort. Then again, maybe I was just paid fifty cents to say that.

Filed Under: china, propaganda, social media


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 May 2016 @ 3:56pm

    One out of every __

    So what's the ratio on non-chinese social media?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Personanongrata, 24 May 2016 @ 4:09pm

    Pot Kettle Black

    But unlike Russia's tendency to pay ordinary citizens to parrot propaganda (which is ultimately what wound up exposing the practice), the study found that many of China's social media propagandists are government workers, for whom propaganda was just part of their overall job duties at existing agencies:

    While back in the US of A the government simply decided to grant itself the authority to disseminate propaganda domestically by revising the Smith Mudnt of 1948 in an amendment added to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013. The amendment is called the Smith Mudnt Modernization Act of 2012.


    The paragraph below has been excerpted from a Wikipedia page titled National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013:


    The Media and Outreach Coordinator for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, Gregory L. Garland, noted that the United States shoots itself, by the release prohibition of material materials produced by the State Department and the BBG within US borders, in the foot by preaching freedom of the press abroad while practicing censorship at home.[46] He argued against a complete repeal of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 stating that the law "creates a statutory firewall between resources intended for foreign audiences and those used domestically. Tear down that firewall, and it will be a matter of time before resources and personnel who focus on talking about America overseas are diverted in favor of domestic “public affairs,” the short-term political imperative of any administration." An unnamed Pentagon official who was concerned about the 2012 law version stated: "It removes the protection for Americans. It removes oversight from the people who want to put out this information. There are no checks and balances. No one knows if the information is accurate, partially accurate, or entirely false.”

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 May 2016 @ 5:18pm

      Re: Pot Kettle Black

      thank you, i will add as a reminder to many :we are STILL under an official 'state of emergency' since nine one one... it is renewed every 6 months quietly and unnoted...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 May 2016 @ 6:29pm

      Re: Pot Kettle Black

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 May 2016 @ 6:55pm

      Re: Pot Kettle Black

      It still gets me that what used to be considered tinfoil-hat speculation, nowadays more often than not, turns out to be true.

      But no worries, all this propaganda is just the "good guys" keeping us safe. It's just like how they keep us safe with mass domestic surveillance. I mean, there's no way it would ever be used by unscrupulous folks for anti-democratic, anti-incumbent, anti-competitive, anti-free market, anti-public good, purposes. There's no chance in hell that massive abuse from all this data being collected on everyone has a 100% probability of occurring because people in positions of authority can always be trusted to do what's right. Any other conclusion would just be crazy talk.

      Revealed: US spy operation that manipulates social media
      "The US military is developing software that will let it secretly manipulate social media sites by using fake online personas to influence internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda."

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Personanongrata, 24 May 2016 @ 4:15pm

    Pot Kettle Black Part Deux

    And then of course there is this report from Consortium News:

    How Reagan’s Propaganda Succeeded
    June 4, 2015

    From the Archive: The U.S. political/media system is awash in propaganda drowning any rational debate about crucial foreign policy issues. But how did that happen? A key turning point was the Reagan administration’s pushback against public skepticism over Vietnam and CIA scandals of the 1970s, Robert Parry wrote in 2010.

    By Robert Parry (Originally published on March 8, 2010)

    In the 1980s, CIA propaganda experts and military psy-war specialists oversaw the creation of special programs aimed at managing public perceptions in both targeted foreign countries and the United States, according to declassified documents at Ronald Reagan’s Presidential Library.

    These documents discovered in 2010 buttress previously disclosed evidence that President Reagan’s CIA Director William J. Casey played a key behind-the-scenes role in pushing this political action initiative, which recruited well-heeled private-sector conservatives to subsidize the secretive government operations.

    The documents show that Casey used a senior CIA propaganda and disinformation specialist named Walter Raymond Jr., who was placed inside the National Security Council in 1982, to oversee the project and to circumvent legal prohibitions against the CIA engaging in propaganda that might influence U.S. public opinion or politics.

    https://consortiumnews.com/2015/06/04/how-reagans-propaganda-succeeded/

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 May 2016 @ 6:01pm

    "One Out Of Every 178 Posts"

    Seems a bit low.
    Assuming that a significant number of the 177 posts regurgitate said propaganda in some form or another, then that number is quite a bit larger.

    On a side note, I doubt China is alone in this nefarious behavior.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 May 2016 @ 7:48pm

    Didn't the white house create a whole new department to do exactly that... Go on Twitter and shit?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Douglas, 24 May 2016 @ 7:59pm

    Why does the Chinese government even bother wasting money on faking positive comments on China on the internet. It ain't gonna work. What a waste of resources.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 May 2016 @ 3:36am

    any chance on a US study any time soon?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 May 2016 @ 8:15am

    Really it is only 1 in every 178. I would have expected higher.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), 25 May 2016 @ 10:34am

    Yay! We're winning!

    Wow. Only 1-in-178, huh? Here I thought the communist countries were big into propaganda. But we're totally disgracing them. I mean, what are we up to, now, about 1-in-15? And, very cool, some of it is even done by the government.

    Go USA!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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