The Chinese government has long been suspected of hiring as many as 2 million 'zombies' to surreptitiously insert 'fake' posts on social media as if they were the genuine opinions of ordinary people, according to three Harvard researchers.
The researchers estimate that 488 million posts a year are fabricated by so-called 'fifty-cent party' workers, rumoured to be paid RMB 0.5 (about 8 US cents) per comment.
Previously, such suspicions of astroturfing were based on "intuition, logic and a small number of available anecdotes", wrote Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts of Harvard University in a paper published last week.
According to the trio, empirical evidence now exists from leaked government directives — an archive of 2,341 emails from the Internet Propaganda Office of Zhanggong, a district of Ganzhou City in Jiangxi province.
These leaked emails give explicit details of the work of numerous 'fifty-cent party' accounts and include more than 43,000 known authors. The emails contain copies of the fake posts sent to the Internet Propaganda Office claiming credit for completing their "assignments", Harvard stated.
Much of the opinion-swaying content involved "cheerleading for China, the revolutionary history of the Communist Party, or other symbols of the regime" and kept away from "arguing with skeptics of the government".
This finding differed from the prevailing view of these spin doctors being argumentative or defensive.
In fact, they avoid controversial issues entirely, which the researchers inferred to be a strategy designed to "actively distract and redirect public attention from ongoing criticism, other grievances, or collective action".
The posts were split about evenly between government sites and commercial ones: 53 percent were political comments on government sites (GanzhouWeb, Newskj, DajiangWeb, JidanWeb, JiangxiWeb, CCTVWeb, RenminWeb, JiujiangWeb, QiangGouWeb), while 46 percent were on Sina Weibo, Tencent Weibo, Baidu Tieba and QZone.
Harvard found no evidence that the commentators were actually paid fifty cents or any other piecemeal amount. Instead, the researchers surmise that they are public servants who already hold government and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) jobs.
"We would guess this activity is a requirement of their existing jobs or at least rewarded in performance reviews," stated the study.
Here are some translated examples of the posts:
- China’s rise is now inevitable. On one hand, the US publicly asserts that if China does not perish the West will wither; on the other hand it tells the Chinese people that your government is problematic: you have to overthrow it so you can live a better life. Is there a more ridiculous and contradictory logic than this?
- My dear friends, if you go through your Weibo, you’ll discover that the system automatically had you follow Xue Manzi, Li Kaifu, Zuo Yeben, Han Han, Li Chengpeng and other populist Weibo users. This is a typical tactic of indoctrination and brainwashing, I suggest you unfollow them.
- The government has done a lot of practical things, among which is solving a significant part of the
- The policy of renovating mud-brick houses has allowed villagers to move out of mud-brick dwellings into small, Western-style buildings. The village has been transformed, we are so grateful.
- We hope the central government provides us with even more support.
- We hope there will be more good policies like "Various Opinions" (the abbreviated name of an economic development policy).
- We look forward to the leadership of our party secretary... We hope that he can carry out more policies that will benefit the people in different aspects, especially in education and health care.
- Many revolutionary martyrs fought bravely to create the blessed life we have today! Respect these heroes.
- [I will] carry the red flag stained with the blood of our forefathers, and unswervingly follow the path of
- We all have to work harder, to rely on ourselves, and to take the initiative to move forward.]
- [If] everyone can live good lives, then the China Dream will be realised!