Data scientists at Harvard University have found that the government of the People’s Republic of China generates an estimated 448 million fake social media posts per year. The posts are an effort to shape online conversations by citizens and to distract them from sensitive topics “and change the subject”—largely through “cheerleading” posts promoting the Chinese Communist Party and the government.
The research, conducted by Harvard professor Gary King and former Harvard graduate students Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts and supported by Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Science, made use of a goldmine of propaganda content. This included a leaked archive of e-mails sent to the Zhanggong District Internet Propaganda Office from 2013 to 2014 that showed government workers’ documentation of completion of fake post work, including screen shots. The research also analyzed social media posts on Chinese websites from 2010 to 2015.
Previously, posts like these were believed to be the work of what observers have called the “50-cent Party”—named for what some believed the posters are paid by the state for their propaganda work. As it turns out, the posts analyzed by King and his co-researchers were likely mostly written for free as an extra duty of government employees.