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To sway public opinion, China plants 488 million fake social media posts a year

The Chinese government is paying its employees to generate positive comments on blog posts, and those positive comments totaled about 488 million from 2013 to 2014, a study from Harvard University researchers revealed last week.

The same group of researchers, led by Director of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science Gary King, previously reported on “50 cent party members” — a group hired and paid 50 cents a post — to redirect conversations on social media.

In their latest study, the researchers said roughly 480 million social media posts were fabricated by the Chinese government to “regularly distract the public and change the subject, as most of the these posts involve cheerleading for China, the revolutionary history of the Communist Party, or other symbols of the regime.”

King said in a phone interview that his team was surprised to find the “50 cent party” was actually a group of already hired government employees using their personal and government social media accounts. The researchers studied an archive leaked by a blogger of thousands of e-mails from the Internet Propaganda Office of Zhanggong county from 2013 and 2014, around the time of deadly riots in Xinjiang province in western China.

They used the emails to cross-reference the names of government employees to their online profiles, and directly asked some of the employees if they were involved in writing the positive posts.

The researchers found that 99.3 percent, or about 40,000, of the social media posts in Zhanggong county were from those in the “50 cent party.” They multiplied that number by China’s 2,800 other counties with Internet access to extrapolate the 480 million figure.

The constructed social media posts were not arguing against criticism of the government; instead, the posts appeared meant to distract Chinese social media users from participating in an uprising against the government by posting comments and links to glowing stories about China’s local economic development, for example.

The comments were not the thoughts of ordinary citizens, but of those representing the government, the study contends.

That creates an inaccurate picture of the public’s views, which could be problematic for companies that want to gauge public opinion for marketing purposes, King said. King is the co-founder and a board member of Crimson Hexagon, a social media analytics company based in Boston.

“Companies need to pay attention to [social media] activity as not all opinions are of the people, they are the opinions of the government,” he said. In addition, comments that are legitimately generated from the public could be censored by the government, he added.

King created an automated text analysis software to help determine if social media posts were coming from the Communist regime or from the Chinese people, which he used in the study.

He said his team is considering translating their research into Chinese. 

“Our research page is not censored in China,” King said. “Maybe someone will want to read it.”