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How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, Not Engaged Argument

  • GARY KING (a1), JENNIFER PAN (a2) and MARGARET E. ROBERTS (a3)
Abstract

The Chinese government has long been suspected of hiring as many as 2 million 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 most 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 show that the goal of this massive secretive operation is instead to 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. 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.

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Copyright
Corresponding author
Gary King is Albert J. Weatherhead III University Professor, Institute for Quantitative Social Science, 1737 Cambridge St., Harvard University, Cambridge MA 02138; GaryKing.org (King@Harvard.edu).
Jennifer Pan is Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, 450 Serra Mall, Building 120, Stanford University, Stanford CA 94304; jenpan.com (jp1@stanford.edu).
Margaret E. Roberts is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of California, San Diego, Social Sciences Building 301, 9500 Gilman Dr., #0521, La Jolla, CA 92093-0521; MargaretRoberts.net (meroberts@ucsd.edu).
Footnotes
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Our thanks to Neel Guha, Peter Dyrud, Yingjie Fan, and many others for superb research assistance; Danielle Allen, Peter Bol, Becky Fair, Chase Harrison, Iain Johnston, Franziska Keller, Blake Miller, Jean Oi, Samantha Ravich, Brandon Stewart, Daniela Stockmann, Andy Walder, Yuhua Wang, Chaodan Zheng, and Yun Zhu for helpful comments; and DARPA (contract W31P4Q-13-C-0055/983-3) and the National Science Foundation (grant 1500086) for research support. Authors are listed alphabetically. Data and information necessary to replicate the results in this article appear in King et al. (2017).

Footnotes
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