By Sean Illing
Now Russia is following China’s blueprint.
The art of suppressing dissent has been perfected over the years by authoritarian governments. For most of human history, the solution was simple: force. Punish people severely enough when they step out of line and you deter potential protesters.
But in the age of the internet and “fake news,” there are easier ways to tame dissent.
A new study by Gary King of Harvard University, Jennifer Pan of Stanford University, and Margaret Roberts of the University of California San Diego suggests that China is the leading innovator on this front. Their paper, titled “How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, Not Engaged Argument,” shows how Beijing, with the help of a massive army of government-backed internet commentators, floods the web in China with pro-regime propaganda.
What’s different about China’s approach is the content of the propaganda. The government doesn’t refute critics or defend policies; instead, it overwhelms the population with positive news (what the researchers call “cheerleading” content) in order to eclipse bad news and divert attention away from actual problems.
This has allowed the Chinese government to manipulate citizens without appearing to do so. It permits just enough criticism to maintain the illusion of dissent and only acts overtly when fears of mass protest or collective action arise.
To learn more about China’s internet propaganda machine, I reached out to Roberts, one of the authors of the paper. I asked her how successful China has been at manipulating its population and, more importantly, if she thinks this brand of online propaganda will become a model for authoritarianism in the digital age.
You can read our full conversation below.
[Author’s update: On November 14, Reuters reported that the Russian government, under Putin’s leadership, is following China’s model. The Kremlin, according to the report, has sent “instructions” to 45 major companies demanding that they supply news stories that put the country and its leadership “in a positive light.” Russia’s approach is eerily similar to China’s, and probably a sign that we can expect to see more of this from other countries.]
How does China use the internet to manipulate its population?
With this particular study, we were motivated by rumors of what’s called the “50 Cent Party” in China [more on this below]. People were convinced that China was engaged in a widespread online propaganda campaign that targeted its own population. But we never had direct evidence that this was ongoing.
Then in 2014, there was a massive leak that revealed what China was doing and how they organized their propaganda machine. So that gave us an opportunity to look at the actual posts the Chinese government was producing and spreading on the web for propagandistic purposes.
We gathered up all the data from the leaked email archive, and that allowed us to explore the content of the propaganda, which is something that no one had done before.
And what did you find?
We had always thought that the purpose of propaganda was to argue against or undermine critics of the regime, or to simply persuade people that the critics were wrong. But what we found is that the Chinese government doesn’t bother with any of that.
Instead, the content of their propaganda is what we call “cheerleading” content. Basically, they flood the web with overwhelmingly positive content about China’s politics and culture and history. What it amounts to is a sprawling distraction campaign rather than an attempt to sell a set of policies or defend the policies of the regime.
I want to dive deeper into that, but I want to make sure we don’t glide past the “50 Cent Party” reference. Can you explain what that is?
The 50 Cent Party is a kind of informal branch of the Chinese government that carries out its online propaganda campaign — so these are the foot soldiers who post the content, share the posts, etc. The name stems from the rumor that the members were each paid 50 cents for every post that helped the government. We didn’t find evidence that people were being paid 50 cents, however. It turns out posting online propaganda is just part of a government job.
Do we have any idea how many members there are or how many people occupy these posts?
The rumor before we started studying this is that it’s something like 2 million people, but we simply don’t know for sure. But we estimate that the government fabricates and posts 448 million social media comments a year.
So let’s talk about China’s strategy. In the paper, you point out that China’s government actively manipulates its population, but that it doesn’t necessarily appear that way to its citizens. Part of the reason for this is China’s unusual approach to propaganda, which is to avoid refuting skeptics or defending policies and instead flood the digital space with happy news. What’s the strategic logic behind this approach?
We think the purpose is distraction, because these posts are highly coordinated within certain time periods and the posts are written uniformly over time. They’re actually really bursty (meaning lots of similarly themed posts at the same time). The basic idea seems to be to flood the internet with positive noise in order to drown out bad news and distract from more serious or problematic issues.
And they believe this is the most effective way to control political discourse?
I think they realized that politics is about controlling the narrative and setting the agenda. Politicians and government officials in China want people to talk about the issues that reflect well on them. Their calculation is pretty simple: If they engage critics on issues that are complicated or reflect poorly …read more