How the Chinese Government Uses Social Media to Stop Dissent

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Photo: Bloomberg/Bloomberg Finance LP/Getty Images

For years, rumors have persisted about a Chinese propaganda army known as the 50 Cent Party, which argues with government dissenters on social media and in comment sections online. The legend of the group — so-called because its members supposedly receive 50 cents in yuan (or eight American cents) for every post — has come to reflect the belief that China’s propaganda arm is ever-present online, keeping a watchful eye on its citizens and keeping them in line, online.

A new study, summarized by NPR, finds that many of the assumptions made about the 50 Cent Party are unfounded, and there’s little evidence to suggest that a dedicated team of online commenters actually exists. Instead, researchers at Harvard found that “almost no systematic empirical evidence exists for this claim, or, more importantly, for the Chinese regime’s strategic objective in pursuing this activity.”

According to leaked emails from the country’s Internet Propaganda Office, pro-government social-media posts are made by government employees who otherwise have bigger jobs to do — the same way you might be asked to tweet about your employers’ latest project or product. It’s an extra task performed piecemeal, likely without extra compensation, rather than by a dedicated team. In other words, in this arena at least, Denny’s has a more institutionalized social-media strategy than the Chinese government.

But perhaps more important than who is posting is when they do it and how. The social-media propaganda game isn’t a steady torrent of pro-government messaging intended to change hearts and minds, but rather an attempt to distract critics “in highly focused bursts, at times of controversy or planned collective action.” Roughly one of every 178 posts on Chinese social media is made by a government employee for propaganda purposes, but those posts aren’t published at a regular pace. They’re timed to overwhelm dissent at key moments.

In other words, the Chinese government appears to have figured out that you can’t actually win an argument online — you can only distract your opponents and drown them out.