The Chinese government "fabricates and posts about 448 million social media comments a year," according to a study conducted by researchers at Harvard, Stanford, and the University of California San Diego.
The Chinese government has long been suspected of hiring as many as 2,000,000
people to surreptitiously insert huge numbers of pseudonymous and other deceptive
writings into the stream of real social media posts, as if they were the genuine opinions
of ordinary people. Many academics, and most journalists and activists, claim
that these so-called "50c party" posts vociferously argue for the government's side
in political and policy debates. As we show, this is also true of the vast majority of
posts openly accused on social media of being 50c. Yet, almost no systematic empirical
evidence exists for this claim, or, more importantly, for the Chinese regime's
strategic objective in pursuing this activity. In the first large scale empirical analysis
of this operation, we show how to identify the secretive authors of these posts,
the posts written by them, and their content. We estimate that the government fabricates
and posts about 448 million social media comments a year. In contrast to prior
claims, we show that the Chinese regime's strategy is to avoid arguing with skeptics
of the party and the government, and to not even discuss controversial issues. We
infer that the goal of this massive secretive operation is instead to distract the public
and change the subject, as most of the these posts involve cheerleading for China,
the revolutionary history of the Communist Party, or other symbols of the regime.
We discuss how these results fit with what is known about the Chinese censorship
program, and suggest how they may change our broader theoretical understanding of
"common knowledge" and information control in authoritarian regimes.