Chinese government workers cook up almost half a billion cheery social media posts a year

Don’t believe everything that you read.
Don’t believe everything that you read.
Image: Reuters/Nir Elias
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The public has long known about China’s internet propaganda machine, but until now details have remained murky. Analyzing a trove of leaked government emails, researchers estimate that a legion of internet commenters, employed by the Chinese government, create about 488 million fake social media posts every year.

In the study (pdf), researchers from Harvard University, Stanford, and the University of California, San Diego identified the authors of these social media posts (known as members of China’s “50-cent party,” because they are rumored to earn 50 cents per post) and analyzed the content of the posts themselves. Contrary to popular belief about how information control happens in China, the commenters mostly leave positive social media posts, rather than trash opponents of China or its Communist party.

“They do not step up to defend the government, its leaders, and their policies from criticism, no matter how vitriolic,” the researchers write in the study. The internet commenters instead focus on creating “cheerleading” posts.

Examples of the “cheerleading posts” include:

• 向所有为中华民族繁荣富强做出伟大贡献的先人们致敬!人民英雄永垂不 朽 [Respect to all the people who have greatly contributed to the prosperity and success of the Chinese civilization! The heros of the people are immortal]

• 我们自己要更加努力,不等不靠,主动上前。 [We all have to work harder, to rely on ourselves, to take the initiative to move forward.]

• 爱我中华 [I love China]

• 赣州加油哦 [Way to go Ganzhou]

The authors argue that this is meant to distract the public and deter government protests. They also found that the commenters aren’t producing at the same volume all year; they flood social media sites with their cheery content at strategic times.

For example, the authors found a burst of about 3,500 posts just after a deadly railway explosion in April 2014. Among the topics covered in the posts were “people’s livelihood” and “good governance.” The internet commenters created similar outbursts after riots, government meetings, and public holidays.

To perform their analysis, the researchers analyzed emails from a propaganda office in Zhanggong, a district in China’s Ganzhou City. The emails were leaked by an anonymous blogger in 2014, and have been in the public domain since. As Quartz previously reported, the government’s propaganda arm in Zhanggong is likely just one of many other offices in other, larger cities.