China · CounterPropaganda · Information Warfare · Propaganda

China’s Response To Study Confirms It Uses ‘Strategic Distraction’ To Prevent Collective Action. Sound Familiar?

from the oh,-look,-a-squirrel dept

Last May, Techdirt wrote about a draft version of a study of how China deploys its vast “50 Cent Party” propagandists — named for the amount of money they are supposedly paid for every post — to control discourse online. The final version of the paper, entitled “How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument,” has now appeared, and it includes a fascinating appendix:

We describe here a rare tacit confirmation of the existence of the 50c party, as well as an apparent admission to the accuracy of our leaked archive and the veracity of our empirical results, all unexpectedly offered by the Chinese government in response to our work.

As the Appendix explains, the draft version of the paper received a huge amount of international attention when it was released last year. Most significantly, Global Times, a newspaper published by the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s primary mouthpiece, wrote an editorial on the study. Although this isn’t an official statement from the Chinese authorities, the Appendix points out that it is reasonable to interpret it as a close approximation to their views. Along the way, it provides some invaluable insights into the online world in China. For example, by comparing public comments on the editorial with those found elsewhere on Chinese social media, the researchers were able to judge how the Chinese people viewed the use of “strategic distraction” to control online discussions:

Our estimates indicate that 82% of the comments on the paper’s website which expressed an opinion supported China’s system of public opinion guidance (with 15% critical). Yet, among the likely broader audience found on Weibo [China’s home-grown version of Twitter], only 30% were supportive (with 63% critical)

That contradicts a central claim of the editorial, which is that “Chinese society is generally in agreement regarding the necessity of ‘public opinion guidance’.” The researchers also note that indirectly the editorial confirms four important claims they made in their original paper.

First, although the Global Times has English and Chinese editions, with many articles published in both languages, the editorial about our paper was published only in Chinese. That is, even though it objected to how the story was covered in the international press, the CCP was primarily addressing its own people. This seems to be a regular strategy of the regime and is consistent with our interpretation of their main perceived threats being their own people rather than Western powers.

Moreover, not only did the editorial not deny that the 50 Cent Army operated on a massive scale — probably impossible, since Chinese citizens know full well it exists — it took no issue with any of the conclusions drawn by the researchers. As the latter wrote:

We (inadvertently) asked the Chinese government whether they agreed with our results, and they effectively concurred. Although social scientists often conduct interviews of individual public officials, we are grateful for the unusual, if not unprecedented, chance to pose questions to an organ of the Chinese government and have it respond, for all practical purposes, as a government, or at least in a way that represents it.

However, arguably the most important point is the following:

In the editorial, the government also acknowledges that the purpose of public opinion guidance is to constrain or stop the spread of “hot button issues” that go viral on-line or “grassroots social issues” that have collective action potential. This also confirms a central point of our work.

When Techdirt first wrote about this work last year, it was undoubtedly interesting, and added to our knowledge of how governments flood the Internet with false information. But in the wake of the events of the last few days, during which the White House has disseminated what it calls “alternative facts,” and “collective action” has emerged as a key political response, it has acquired a heightened relevance.