ABSTRACT | Comment

Weapons of mass distraction

If in India the emergence of social media as a “new public sphere” has given an impetus to opinion-generation in a largely free society, how has this impacted a single party-ruled country like China? How has the Communist Party-ruled regime intervened in social media? This is what Gary King et al. seek to answer in “How the Chinese government fabricates social media posts for strategic distraction, not engaged argument” (American Political Science Review, 2017).

The authors find that the Chinese government intervenes in social media to prevent any collective action over issues that might ultimately threaten the regime. The government aims to distract participants from engaging in critical issues. The authors try to ascertain if there is a set of participants engaged by the regime who are into “astro-turfing” — “posting fabricated social media comments as if they are the genuine opinions of ordinary Chinese people”. They rely on a large tranche of leaked emails from the Internet Propaganda Office of Zhanggong in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province, to find out about the existence of social media participants termed the “50c party”.


Using novel methods of content, network analysis, and categorisation, the authors then classify the content posted online by the 50c party obtained from the tranche. They find patterns and connections which they extrapolate into forming an understanding of the 50c party’s functioning in the rest of the social media universe in China. They then find that the bulk of the content posted by the 50c party (estimated to be around 448 million posts a year) corresponds to cheerleading for regime positions/ policies/ leaders; or factual reporting about government policy or activity; or non-argumentative praise or suggestions for activity such as housing and welfare projects. The commonly understood role of the 50c party as speculated by journalists and earlier academics was that these were social media commentators paid by the Chinese regime to engage in “taunting foreign countries” or “argumentative praise or criticism” of opinions that are unfriendly to the regime.

The authors negate these ideas. They say the Chinese regime is keen on mediating opinion on social media only to the extent that the criticisms and arguments do not amount to collective action. Engaging in “flame wars” and arguments only has the potential of prolonging critiques and it is precisely the reason why the 50c party engages only in posting non-controversial issues as a means of distraction.

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Printable version | Aug 3, 2021 1:11:06 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/weapons-of-mass-distraction/article19576639.ece

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