Chinese government employees are inserting millions of deceptive messages into the streams of real social networks, to divert citizens’ attention from adverse or embarrassing news, according to new research.
Gary King, a political scientist at Harvard University, has compiled the first study of its kind of the secretive Fifty Cent Group, a collective of government workers posing as ordinary citizens on the internet.
The group was originally given its name by academics and journalists who believed members were paid 50 cents, or 5 jiao (1/2p), for each post they inserted into social media streams.
But the study found no evidence the workers were paid and it is thought the work is likely done as part of their job responsibilities.
Contrary to previous thinking the report reveals the group’s strategy is likely to distract Chinese citizens by changing the topic of conversation, rather than respond to adverse posts with counter arguments.
It confirms the existence of a “massive secret operation” in China pumping out an estimated 488 million fabricated social media posts per year, part of an effort to “regularly distract the public and change the subject” from any policy-related issues that threaten to anger citizens enough to turn them out onto the streets.
“In countless online chat rooms, bulletin boards, and Weibo threads, Chinese social media roils with the same ideological debates that also increasingly consume Chinese academics and elites,” the report reads.
Machine analysis of leaked databases and emails reveals the collective typically swings into action as social unrest or anti-establishment discontent gathers momentum.
Around half of the posts appear as posts and comments on government websites while the other half are inserted into the streams of commercial social media sites such as Baidu and Weibo.
“The content of [50-center] posts was completely different than what had been assumed by academics, journalists, activists, and participants in social media,” said Jennifer Pan, an assistant professor at Stanford and one of the report’s authors.
“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,” the report states.
“We infer that the goal of this massive secretive operation is to regularly distract the public and change the subject, as most of these posts involve cheerleading for China, the revolutionary history of the Communist Party, or other symbols of the regime.”
Citing previous research, the report contends that distraction is a shrewd information control strategy that is more effective as arguments are rarely effective in putting an end to opposing arguments.
“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 recognise fast),” it says.