Beijing: Substituting censorship, China is “flooding” social media with over 488 million comments a year by paid supporters to sway public opinion in government’s favour, according to a research report.
The research by Harvard academics draws on leaked documents to paint a picture of the way China polices social media.
The government and its army of helpers write 488 million fake posts a year, the BBC quoted the report as saying.
The profusion of comments on social media sits alongside other efforts, to find and delete content deemed too sensitive for Chinese citizens.
The vast majority of the comments and posts made on social media are crafted to look like they come from ordinary people, the authors of the paper, who were led by Gary King from Harvard’s department of government said.
Many of the posts do not attempt to rebut or argue with critical commenters, they said.
“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,” the research paper said.
“Letting an argument die, or changing the subject, usually works much better than picking an argument and getting someone’s back up,” it said.
More often Communist Party workers or ordinary citizens employed to post on behalf of the government engage in “cheerleading” about the state’s achievements or its history.
With world’s largest 667 million internet connections, most of them connected to microblog social media like Weibo, China controls the web content with huge firewalls blocking content critical of the government, leaders and the ruling Communist Party of China.
Despite the most advanced online infrastructure, Chinese internet is regarded one of the slowest in the world due to firewall monitoring.
The 488 million posts per year are made more effective by making sure they are added during the busiest times on social media or when a controversial issue is being widely debated.
The study used documents and spreadsheets leaked in 2014 that found the names and online pseudonyms of people employed by the Chinese authorities to post on the state’s behalf, the research paper said.
The academics extrapolated from this sample in an attempt to estimate the true scale of official activity on social media sites. 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 of the report said.