As many a news or social media commenter has discovered, if you post an unfavorable sentiment about China online you are likely to unleash a deluge of pro-Chinese propaganda and anti-Western invective in subsequent comments – often identifiable by its novel grammar, spelling, and official talking points as the work of Chinese “patriots” (actually a legion of hacks employed by the Chinese government).
It turns out this is just the tip of the iceberg, as the regime pours even more resources into its domestic social media propaganda efforts, aiming to mold public opinion and distract ordinary Chinese people from bad news and online dissent. In fact the Chinese government, or its proxies, posted 488 million fake social media comments last year, the vast majority targeting its own citizens, according to a new study by scholars at Harvard University, Stanford, and the University of California at San Diego.
The practice is well known to the Chinese public, with skeptics referring to the online propaganda organization as the “Fifty Cent Party” because (rumor has it) employees are paid 50 Chinese cents (fen) for every pro-regime social media post they produce. This effort is apparently separate from the government’s external propaganda machine, which tends to be more combative in replying to criticism of the government; by contrast, the domestic propaganda focuses on positive statements about the regime and generally avoids getting into acrimonious debates with other social media users.
The study noted that this approach may actually save the government work in censoring critical comments by simply leading discussion elsewhere: “Letting an argument die, or changing the subject, usually works much better than picking an argument and getting someone’s back up.” On that note the government is more likely to unleash the commenters during sensitive periods, including around big party meetings or during ethnic unrest in western China.
Through sleuthing and careful engagement, the researchers found that most of the commenters were employed by government agencies, including departments focused on tax collection and human resources. They also believe that contrary to the rumors the commenters aren’t paid per post, but probably are assigned the duties as part of their regular jobs.
The Chinese government raised alarms about social media early on. In July 2010, for example, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released a report, titled “Development of China's New Media,” warning of the subversive potential of online social media, which the authors claim is being used by Western governments (including the United States) to foment political unrest inside China.