It is no secret that the Chinese government fabricates social media in the country in order to sway public opinion, but new evidence has emerged revealing that the scale of this manipulation is far greater than anyone previously realized.
Harvard professor Gary King and researchers Jennifer Pan and Margaret E. Roberts analyzed more than 40,000 posts contained in leaked emails from an Internet Propaganda Office in Zhanggong and found that Chinese government employees are given the task of posting fake comments on social media for the explicit purpose of discouraging dissent against the government. It was previously believed that these false posts were made by civilians who were paid a modest fee per post. King found no evidence that these government employees are paid anything extra for the task.
What is arguably even more intriguing is the fact that these fabricated posts and comments do not attempt to argue with or dispute anti-government media. Instead, their aim is to distract.
“Arguments don’t end because somebody has a better argument,” said King. “So if the Chinese government’s point is to stop discussion about a collective action event, whatever it is, or critical events of the government, arguing with people is an extremely ineffective way of doing it.”
“If you’re having an argument with somebody, and you want to end it, a much better approach than to argue with them is to say, ‘Let’s get ice cream.’ Or, ‘Look at that thing out the window.'”
Additionally, the posts are made in timed, calculated “bursts” rather than spread out over time. These bursts tend to occur around the time of major political events or social unrest.
The comments are also very general in nature and usually do not include names or specific details. Examples cited by the research study include “Many revolutionary martyrs fought bravely to create the blessed life we have today! Respect to these heroes” and “Respect to all the people who have greatly contributed to the prosperity and success of the Chinese civilization! The heroes of the people are immortal.”
“Since censorship alone seems to anger people,” the study read, “the 50c astroturfing program [entailing creation of fake grassroots content] has the additional advantage of enabling the government to actively control opinion without having to censor as much as they might otherwise,”