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How pro-government trolls 'guide' China's online debate

In response to a recent study on how the Chinese government diverts attention from sensitive topics with fake online posts, a state-run newspaper claims it is legitimate to "guide public opinion" in the Chinese context.

For years it has been believed that the Chinese government hired thousands of commentators to defend the ruling Communist Party (CPC) on social media.

These pro-government trolls are known as the "50 Cent Party," since it is said that they are paid 50 cents for each post they write to defend the party line.

However, a recent

study

by a group of researchers from Harvard University suggests our perception was wrong.

"We were surprised to learn, unlike what everyone also thought, that '50 Cent Party' members are not ordinary people. In fact, they are government employees asked to do this extra task during their regular jobs," Harvard University political scientist Gary King, one of the three authors of the study, told DW.

Analyzing a set of leaked emails to and from the account of the Internet Propaganda Office of Zhanggong district in the southeast Jiangxi province, researchers found that more than 99 percent of 43,800 posts they identified as fake had been created by government employees.

The study also estimates that the government fabricates 448 million social media posts per year.

Though it was previously believed that "50 Cent Party" members aimed at engaging in online arguments with government critics, the study suggests that they actually shy away from controversial debates. Instead, their strategy is to distract the public and divert their attention from sensitive topics and engage in less contentious discussions.

"If you want to end a big argument with your child and spouse, the worst thing you can do is to come up with the best counter-argument you can think of. It is much better to distract, to say 'let's go get ice-cream,' or raise some other unrelated topics," says King. "It makes perfect sense."

'Guiding public opinion'

While detailed coverage of the study has not circulated on Chinese social media, an editorial published by the Global Times, a state-run newspaper considered the mouthpiece of the regime, has caught the attention of netizens on Sina Weibo - China's equivalent of Twitter.

Though the paper did not explicitly acknowledge or deny the existence of the "50 Cent Party," it insisted it finds it "legitimate" to "guide public opinion in the Chinese context."

The editorial went on to criticize the Harvard researchers, calling them "arrogant" and "naïve," and arguing they only had a "superficial" knowledge of the state of China's public debate.

Online Reaction

The Global Times' article received more than 500 comments on its official Weibo account. Given the ambigious treatment of the issue of paid trolls, many reactions focused on whether or not the government had just implicitly admitted the existence of the "50 Cent Party."

Chinese netizens also pointed out another type of commenters that neither the study nor the editorial talked about: a group called "ziganwu," which literally translates as "bring your own grain," a term used by Chinese bloggers to designate pro-government propagandists who unconditionally support the CPC and ask for no payment in return.

Many comments said that this group is much bigger than the "50 Cent Party" on China's social media, and that they actually contribute the majority of posts defending the party line. Others criticized the editorial's claims on the "legitimacy" of steering public debate.

One Weibo user named Lu Nan Shan Shui commented saying she wondered "how can 'guiding public opinion' be legitimate? It is only a trick to fool the public." Another user named Youshen Xiamu said the Global Times was legitimizinig "brainwashing."

Controlled collective speech

This type of criticism being levelled at a state-run newspaper may seem unusual, but as King suggests, this is exactly the misconception the public have concerning the mechanism of censorship in China.

"They don't care what you think; they only care if you have the power to mobilize others," said King.

The researcher explained that individuals criticizing the government are not always censored. However, if an event calling for a protest or the formation of a crowd goes viral, any disucssions related to it will be censored.

"When individuals criticize the government, there will be no '50 Cent' posts opposing it. Instead, they wait for events with collective action potentialand then send in huge bursts of posts to distract people, and try to make them forget their grievances," King explained.

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