Home » international news » How to lose friends and control opinion, Chinese govt style

How to lose friends and control opinion, Chinese govt style

Aleesha Matharu | Updated on: 21 May 2016, 21:45 IST

China is and has always been very good at playing dirty in the great propaganda game. Especially when it comes to its own citizens and controlling the flow of information via a longstanding clampdown.

Now, a new study by Harvard academics has revealed that the Chinese government cranks out 488 million social media posts a year, in order to divert attention away from sensitive issues, in a "massive secret operation".

That basically means taking away attention from any policy-related issue that could threaten to anger citizens enough to push them out onto the streets.

Also read - Trump may not love China, but the Chinese internet sure loves him

It's an effective strategy - after all, there are more than 700 million internet users in China. Instead of arguing a point and further angering said opinion holder, these online stooges do not attempt to rebut, and instead, focus on getting the argument 'to die'.

"Letting an argument die, or changing the subject, usually works much better than picking an argument and getting someone's back up," the research paper says. "They do not step up to defend the government, its leaders, and their policies from criticism, no matter how vitriolic; indeed, they seem to avoid controversial issues entirely."

Online stooges

These opinions and deflections are made to look like they are genuinely written by ordinary Chinese people.

How those behind the posts work and function remains unknown even to the researchers, but they're called wumao, or '50-centers' - slang for the 50 Chinese cents that they allegedly receive for each social media post.

The research finds no evidence these 50-centers are, in fact, paid 50 cents, nor does it find they engage in direct and angry arguments with their opponents.

Instead, they are mostly bureaucrats already on the public payroll, responding to government directives at a time of heightened tension to flood social media with pro-government cheerleading.

The researchers' dataset is drawn from leaked govt emails that prove the govt is behind the posts

Hundreds of pro-Beijing messages were posted after the outbreak of deadly ethnic rioting in the western province of Xinjiang in June 2013, says the report. A similar deluge of positive messages emerged during a major political summit in Beijing in November the same year.

Also read - Panama Papers irk Chinese authorities; get wiped out by the Great Firewall

The researchers' dataset is drawn from leaked govt department emails, and really seems to confirm nothing more than the predictable: that government workers, most of whom work in the local propaganda bureau, post positive comments online.

Reverse censorship

There were good psychological reasons for using distraction rather than censorship or counter-arguments, the paper said.

"Since censorship alone seems to anger people, the 50c astroturfing program (entailing creation of fake grassroots content) has the additional advantage of enabling the government to actively control opinion without having to censor as much as they might otherwise," the authors concluded.

Well, the Chinese government has always had keen foresight when it comes to silencing dissidence. This is just another "feather" in its cap.

More in Catch - China's virtual purge: 15,000 arrested for cybercrime

China's new national security law proves why it's no fun to be Chinese

First published: 21 May 2016, 21:45 IST
Aleesha Matharu @almatharu

Born in Bihar, raised in Delhi and schooled in Dehradun, Aleesha writes on a range of subjects and worked at The Indian Express before joining Catch as a sub-editor. When not at work you can find her glued to the TV, trying to clear a backlog of shows, or reading her Kindle. Raised on a diet of rock 'n' roll, she's hit occasionally by wanderlust. After an eight-year stint at Welham Girls' School, Delhi University turned out to be an exercise in youthful rebellion before she finally trudged her way to J-school and got the best all-round student award. Now she takes each day as it comes, but isn't an eternal optimist.