How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument

Gary King, Distinguished Professor at Harvard University

The Chinese government has long been suspected of hiring as many as 2,000,000 people to surreptitiously insert huge numbers of pseudonymous and other deceptive writings into the stream of real social media posts, as if they were the genuine opinions of ordinary people. Many academics, and most journalists and activists, claim that these so-called “50c party” posts vociferously argue for the government’s side in political and policy debates. As we show, this is also true of the vast majority of posts openly accused on social media of being 50c. Yet, almost no systematic empirical evidence exists for this claim, or, more importantly, for the Chinese regime’s strategic objective in pursuing this activity. In the first large scale empirical analysis of this operation, we show how to identify the secretive authors of these posts, the posts written by them, and their content. We estimate that the government fabricates and posts about 448 million social media comments a year. In contrast to prior claims, we show that the Chinese regime’s strategy is to avoid arguing with skeptics of the party and the government, and to not even discuss controversial issues. We infer that the goal of this massive secretive operation is instead 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. We discuss how these results fit with what is known about the Chinese censorship program, and suggest how they may change our broader theoretical understanding of “common knowledge” and information control in authoritarian regimes. This talk based on this paper (http://GaryKing.org/50c), and is joint work with Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts.

ABOUT THE SPEAKER

Gary King is the Albert J. Weatherhead III University Professor at Harvard University — one of 24 with the title of University Professor, Harvard’s most distinguished faculty position. He is based in the Department of Government (in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences) and serves as Director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science. King develops and applies empirical methods in many areas of social science research, focusing on innovations that span the range from statistical theory to practical application. Full bio available at http://gking.harvard.edu/biocv

September 26, 1:00pm

177 Huntington Ave 11th floor

Pizza will be served at 12:30 on the 10th floor. Please bring your Northeastern ID (or other photo ID) when entering the building.

Please email Janette Briceno (j.briceno[at]northeastern[dot]edu) if you plan to attend so that she may enter your name in the system for access to the 10th floor for lunch before the talk.