The first-ever close analysis of leaked astroturf comments from China's "50c party" reveal Beijing's cybercontrol strategy

The Harvard Institute for Quantitative Science team that published 2016's analysis of the Chinese government's '50c Party', who flood social media with government-approved comments has published a new paper, How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument, in which they reveal their painstaking analysis of a huge trove of leaked emails between 50c Party members and their government handlers.

The research refutes the widely held view that the 50c Party is a group of paid piece-workers who pile on to people who post negative comments about the government; rather, the 50c Party is a closely coordinated group of government workers whose messages are part of their normal, salaried duties, and consist largely of upbeat talk about upcoming government initiatives -- or issues that distract from scandals.

The analysis also reveals semantic features of 50c Party posts, making it possible to use relatively simple language classifiers to make guesses about which posts come from 50c Party members, and validates this hypothesis with a sly way of getting 50c Party members to reveal themselves through deceptive private messages.

One implication: if we assume that the Chinese government is very good at controlling public opinion, and if we want to adopt their tactics to counter Trump, this suggests that we should: a) coordinate to make a lot of noise about the Trump-denying activities over the next four years (eg California expanding public healthcare); b) coordinate to make a lot of noise about arbitrary upbeat subjects ("this new music is just great") on days when Trump is trying to draw everyone's attention to himself. But of course, the 50c Party is able to issue talking points to hundreds of thousands of people and make them work in lockstep.

One way to parsimoniously summarize existing empirical results about information control in China is with a theory of the strategy of the regime. This theory, which as with all theories is a simplification of the complex realities on the ground, involves two complementary principles the Chinese regime appears to follow, one passive and one active. The passive principle is do not engage on controversial issues: do not insert 50c posts supporting, and do not censor posts criticizing, the regime, its leaders, or their policies. The second, active, principle is stop discussions with collective action potential, by active distraction and active censorship. Cheerleading in directed 50c bursts is one way the government distracts the public, although this activity can be also be used to distract from general negativity, government related meetings and events with protest potential, etc. (Citizens criticize the regime without collective action on the ground in many ways, including even via unsubstantiated threats of protest and viral bursts of online-only activity — which, by this definition, do not have collective action potential and so are ignored by the government.)

These twin strategies appear to derive from the fact that 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. Staying in power involves managing their government and party agents in China’s 32 provincial-level regions, 334 prefecture-level divisions, 2,862 county-level divisions, 41,034 township-level administrations, and 704,382 village-level subdivisions, and somehow keeping in check collective action organized by those outside of government. The balance of supportive and critical commentary on social media about specific issues, in specific jurisdictions, is useful to the government in judging the performance of (as well as keeping or replacing) local leaders and ameliorating other information problems faced by central authorities (Dimitrov, 2014a,b,c; Wintrobe, 1998). As such, avoiding any artificial change in that balance — such as from 50c posts or censorship — can be valuable. Distraction is a clever and useful 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. 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). It may even be the case that the function of reasoning in human beings is fundamentally about winning arguments rather than resolving them by seeking truth (Mercier and Sperber, 2011). Distraction even has the advantage of reducing anger compared to ruminating on the same issue Denson, Moulds, and Grisham (2012). Finally, since censorship alone seems to anger people M. Roberts (2015), the 50c astroturfing program has the additional advantage of enabling the government to actively control opinion without having to censor as much as they might otherwise.

How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument [Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts/American Political Science Review, 2017]

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