The Chinese government cranks out 488 million fake social media posts a year in an effort to divert attention away from sensitive issues, a new study estimates.
The researchers describe a "massive secretive operation" carried out by government employees, highlighting just how far China is willing to go to control news and information.
Many foreign websites and social networks, including Google (Tech30) and , Facebook (Tech30), are blocked in the country, and authorities closely monitor and censor activity on homegrown social media sites. ,
The new study, led by Harvard University data scientist Gary King, looks at China's "Fifty Cent Party," referring to the people rumored to be paid 50 Chinese cents (US$0.08) by the government for each positive social media comment they write and post.
The "Fifty Cent Party" is often perceived as weighing in on the government's side in political debates on the Internet. But the study disputes that, suggesting that the posts actually shy away from arguments and controversial issues.
Instead, their aim is to "regularly distract the public and change the subject," the researchers say. "Most of these posts involve cheerleading for China, the revolutionary history of the Communist Party, or other symbols of the regime."
One post they reference reads, "I carry the red flag, stained with the blood of our forefathers, and unswervingly follow the path of the Chinese Communist Party!"
The study also contests the idea that the "Fifty Cent Party" is mainly made up of ordinary citizens hired for a pittance. The researchers suggest most of the fabricated posts appear to be written by workers at government agencies contributing on top of their regular duties.
And in fact, there's no evidence they're being paid extra for the posts despite the popular "Fifty Cent Party" term. Doing so may be part of their job, or they could be rewarded in performance reviews, the study speculates.
It was based primarily on more than 40,000 posts contained in a leaked trove of emails sent in 2013 and 2014 from the Internet Propaganda Office of Zhanggong, a district with a population of about half a million in the southeastern province of Jiangxi. The researchers used that information to extrapolate the number of government-fabricated posts that could be posted nationwide.
They say the emails they studied included messages from workers claiming credit for carrying out their "Fifty Cent" assignments.
Such posts tend to spike during key periods -- after social unrest or around a major political event -- suggesting "a high level of coordination on the part of the government," the study says.
The Cyberspace Administration of China, the country's internet regulator, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
-- Shen Lu contributed reporting.