China is notorious for employing an estimated 2 million government propagandists online. But new research on their tactics reveals a surprising strategy: China’s online army isn’t trying to argue with anyone who opposes the government. It’s just changing the subject.
Harvard researchers published a new study this week that examines the vast trove of documents leaked in 2014 from the Internet Propaganda Office of Zhanggong. The researchers found that instead of trying to actively engage people with arguments about why they were wrong, the goal of the Chinese propagandist was instead to shift the conversation about something else entirely.
The propagandists are nicknamed the Fifty Cent Party because they’re reportedly paid 50 cents (US$0.08) for every message they post. And they’ve been damn busy. The researchers estimate that they create roughly 448 million social media posts per year. About 53 percent of those messages are on government-controlled sites. The remaining posts show up on other popular social media services like China’s tremendously popular Weibo.
The paper, authored by Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts, explains:
The vast majority of scholars, journalists, activists, and participants in social media have, until now, been convinced that the massive 50¢ party is devoted to engaging in argument that defends the regime, its leaders, and their policies
Our evidence indicates the opposite—that the 50¢ party engages in almost no argument of any kind and is instead devoted primarily to distraction through cheerleading for the state, symbols of the regime, or the revolutionary history of the Communist Party.
The researchers compared the leaked documents with the messages they found online associated with known propagandist accounts. From there, they were able to identify precisely what kinds of tactics were being used to persuade the Chinese people.
The messages they studied included statements like “We hope the central government provides us with even more support” and “If everyone can live good lives, then the China Dream has been realized!” On their own, these messages might seem completely innocuous. But inserted into ongoing conversations about government neglect or Communist Party malfeasance, they take on an entirely different tenor.
Another revelation from the documents is that the online propagandists are largely comprised of government employees engaging in propaganda as an extracurricular activity. This shatters the notion that there’s a dedicated propaganda army doing this solely as a day job.
Plenty of questions remain about the Chinese government’s propaganda efforts, including what role they may have in influencing public opinion outside of China. But this new research certainly sheds light on an enormous network of top rate propagandists, who have no doubt learned a thing or two from Americans about the art of distraction.
Now please excuse me while I go binge-watch America’s Next Top Shiny Objects.