May 19th, 2016

Distract and Conquer: New Study Sheds Light on China’s Online Propaganda Strategy

By:   Josh Chin             Source: Wall Street Journal        Date: 19/5/2016


Contrary to popular belief, China’s legions of pro-government Internet commentators aren’t really out to convince critics of anything. They just want everyone to think happy thoughts.

That’s the conclusion of a first-of-its-kind study published this week by a trio of U.S.-based scholars that delves into a large, lightly examined archive of leaked Chinese propaganda emails.

Portrayals of Beijing’s online opinion warriors in both the media and academia have largely focused, perhaps not surprisingly, on those who draw attention to themselves, whether by spitting vitriol at China’s critics or by turning the criticism on other countries. In fact, according to the new study, the vast majority of China’s pro-government Internet users employ a subtler strategy.

“The Chinese regime’s strategy is to avoid arguing with skeptics of the party and the government, and to not even discuss controversial issues,” reads a paper summarizing the study (pdf), which estimates that pro-government Internet users post upwards of 488 million comments on Chinese social media sites every year. “The goal of this massive secretive operation is instead to regularly distract the public and change the subject.”

The paper, posted online Thursday by Harvard University scholar Gary King, is based on a massive trove of emails to and from a propaganda office in the city of Ganzhou, in southern China’s Jiangxi province, that was leaked to the public by a blogger in 2014. According to the blogger, the emails documented the operations of the “50-Cent Party,” an army of pro-government Internet users so named because they were at one point rumored to be paid half a yuan for every message they posted.

The use of fake or temporary accounts to flood social media sites with targeted messages meant to look like they come from legitimate Internet users — a practice known as astroturfing — is a favorite toolof Chinese propaganda authorities. A lack of systematic data has made it difficult to understand exactly how this strategy is deployed.

By reorganizing the previously messy Ganzhou archive, Mr. King and his two co-authors — Jennifer Pan from Stanford University and Margaret Roberts from the University of California, San Diego — were able to conduct what they describe as the first large-scale empirical analysis of the 50-Cent operation.

After cross-checking social-media accounts, categorizing posts and crunching the numbers, the researchers found that the vast majority of pro-government comments — 99.3% — posted at the behest of Ganzhou propaganda authorities didn’t come from freelance Internet users, but instead were posted government employees.

A little more than half, 53%, were posted on government websites, with the rest being posted on commercial sites, chiefly the Twitter-like Weibo microblogging platform.

In previous research, Mr. King has found that Chinese censorship tends to focus most on social-media posts that could inspire protests and other forms of collective action. In this most recent study, the researchers found that most of the pro-government posts came in focused, high-volume bursts, often in a way that suggested the intention was to head off collective action.

One burst of 1,100 posts, for example, came just after riots broke outin Shanshan county in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region in June 2013. Another burst of 3,500 posts came in May 2014, shortly after a deadly blast at a rail station in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi.

What’s unexpected is that, according to the paper, the majority of messages posted in both instances had nothing to with either incident. Instead they concentrated on topics like local economic development, good governance or President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” of national rejuvenation.

That pattern repeats throughout the nearly 44,000 pro-government posts in the archive, according to the paper: Nearly 80% involved cheerleading for the government or policy and 13% contained praise or suggestions, while almost none indulged in argumentative criticism or taunting of foreign countries.

“Respect to all the people who have greatly contributed to the prosperity and success of the Chinese civilization! The heroes of the people are immortal!” reads one sample post provided in the paper.

The prevalence of such posts suggests that the government is more interested in changing the subject than attempting to win an argument or otherwise convince its online critics, the researchers say. “Letting an argument die, or changing the subject, usually works much better than picking an argument and getting someone’s back up,” they write.