The "50-cent army" is an insanely prolific cadre of government workers whose extra duty is to post hundreds of millions of messages to social media, flooding all available channels with feel-good messages about the accomplishments of Chinese sports teams and the high standard of living in China.
China's approach to networked control is one of three dominant strategies used in the world: in Russia, they fill the channel with an untanglable mess of lies and truth, leading people to give up on understanding the situation; for the west's alt-right trolls, the strategy is to be so outrageous that you get picked up and retransmitted by every channel, which lets you reach the tiny minority of otherwise too-thin-spread, broken people and recruit them to your cause; and in China, it's quackspeak, this anodyne, happy-talk-style chatter about nothing much.
China also uses censorship, of course. But the keywords they order the platforms to suppress are not complaints about corruption (those are a useful signal of where problems might be brewing): censorship is instead concentrated on any kind of organizational talk, anything that might mobilize street demonstrations or pull together a coherent opposition. People are encouraged to notice individual broken things in their society, but they are absolutely forbidden from creating a coherent analysis that connects these problems and describes them as a consequence of something really wrong in their country.
It's the Chinese version of Margaret Thatcher's statement that "There is no alternative": the idea that the foundations of the system are permanent, and any changes to it must be cosmetic tinkering at the margins, not deep changes to the structure and ideology.
In How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument, a paper published in the Harvard Gazette, Gary King (Harvard), Jennifer Pan (Stanford), and Margaret Roberts (UCSD), the authors analyze last year's dump of 50-Cent Army internal communications to see how effective the quackspeak/no-alternative approach is.
Roberts conducted an interview with Vox's Sean Illing in which she expands on their findings.
And they believe this is the most effective way to control political discourse?
I think they realized that politics is about controlling the narrative and setting the agenda. Politicians and government officials in China want people to talk about the issues that reflect well on them. Their calculation is pretty simple: If they engage critics on issues that are complicated or reflect poorly on the government, they only amplify the attention those issues receive. So their approach is to ignore the criticisms and shift attention to other topics, and they do that by deluging the internet with positive propaganda.
Are these positive stories actually true, or are we talking about "fake news"?
This is a really interesting question. A lot of what we found in the leaked archive isn't fake news. What they're creating are stories that promote patriotism. They want people talking about and responding to content that favors the regime. But they also want people to think that content is coming from civilians and not from the government, which is why most of this is presented as someone's opinion.
How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument [Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts/Harvard Gazette]
China is perfecting a new method for suppressing dissent on the internet
(Image: FotoosVanRobin, CC-BY-SA)