China: Propaganda trolls behind nearly half a billion fake posts on social media

INTERNET “trolls” in China have churned out an estimated 488 million fabricated social media posts annually as part of the government’s bid to sway public opinion, a recent study revealed.

The new paper by three U.S. researchers is led by Harvard political scientist Gary King who claims to be one of the first in-depth looks into the inner workings of China’s push to influence public opinion by flooding social media with posts portrayed as if they were coming from ordinary people.

Sifting through a trove of government emails leaked in 2014, the researchers found empirical evidence that the secretive operation’s goal is to change the subject and “distract the public” during politically sensitive news events.

According to global affairs magazine Foreign Policy, the study – which was released on May 17 by Harvard, Stanford, and the University of California professors – confirms the existence of the gargantuan clandestine operations.

The campaign is part of an effort to divert attention away from any policy-related issues that threaten to rile citizens to take to the streets in protest.

The trolls in China’s internal cyber warfare are commonly known as Wumao, or 50-centers, who are named after the alleged 50 Chinese cents they earn for each posting on social networking platforms.

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Although the study does not confirm whether or not they received the minuscule amount as payment, it found that most of them comprised of government workers who were already on the public payroll.

The study claims the trolls were devised during times of heightened tension to cheer for the government on social media.

Jennifer Pan, an assistant professor at Stanford who was part of the study, told Foreign Policy: “The content of [50-center] posts was completely different than what had been assumed by academics, journalists, activists, and participants in social media,”

“They — and we before we did this study — turned out to be utterly wrong about how pro-government shills actually operate.”

Additional reporting by Associated Press