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Fifty Cent Party: Chinese government employs huge group of internet workers

The name originates from a popular rumor - never substantiated - that such people are paid 50 cents per pro-government post

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Chinese Government Office
Government Office of Shenyang, Wikimedia Commons

China’s government fabricates and posts several hundred million social media posts a year to influence public opinion about the country, according to a new paper by U.S. researchers examining one of the most opaque aspects of the Communist Party’s rule.

The academic study led by Harvard political scientist Gary King 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.

Aside from possessing highly sophisticated censorship controls to find and delete content outright, China’s government has long been known to employ a huge group of internet workers, known colloquially as the “Fifty Cent Party,” to influence discourse in subtler ways. The name originates from a popular rumor – never substantiated – that such people are paid 50 cents per pro-government post.

File:UK-China People to People Dialogue (7083960927).jpg
source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The research project, which took advantage of a trove of government emails, spreadsheets and work reports from a propaganda office in central China leaked online in 2014, concludes that an estimated 488 million fake posts a year “enables the government to actively control opinion without having to censor as much as they might otherwise.”

The researchers also reached a slightly surprising conclusion about the goal of the massive operation: to “distract the public” during politically sensitive news events. That counters the widespread perception that Beijing employs internet workers to shut down its critics on online forums.

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“They do not step up to defend the government, its leaders, and their policies from criticism, no matter how vitriolic; indeed, they seem to avoid controversial issues entirely,” the paper’s authors write. “Letting an argument die, or changing the subject, usually works much better than picking an argument and getting someone’s back up.”

The paper detailed an elaborate methodology used by the research team, which employed its own army of research assistants. After gaining a glimpse into how China’s “Fifty Cent” operation organizes itself from leaked documents, the research group created numerous fake accounts of their own to ask large samples of suspected government workers an elaborate set of questions to confirm that the posters were indeed getting guidance from authorities.

One of the three co-authors, Margaret Roberts from the University of California, San Diego, said in an email that examining leaked documents or interviewing former participants could offer a biased view of the operation, but “large-scale statistical analyses of online data allow us to directly observe and summarize what people within the system are doing.”

The trio of political scientists, which also included Stanford University’s Jennifer Pan, has been using statistical methods for years to study China’s methods of information control, sometimes reaching somewhat unexpected conclusions.

In a 2014 study sifting through social media posts, they found that Chinese censors allowed netizens a significant amount of freedom to vent their frustrations with the government – until any calls for organized action that could lead to street protests appeared. Those were swiftly taken down. (VOA)

  • Pritam Go Green

    No wonder why USA is worried about China so much. The pace at which it is emerging as a Asian superpower is simply commendable.

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Pakistan to Curb ‘Hate Speech’ on Social Media

According to Chaudhry, several arrests have been made this week based on misuse of social media to issue fatwas and spread extremist narrative

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Following this, a National Security Committee was also held to discuss Sharif's
Pakistan Flag, wikimedia commons

The Pakistan government plans will crack down on “hate speech” on social media from next week and set up a new authority, which will enforce regulations for the digital, print and electronic media, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said here on Wednesday.

“We have created a mechanism through which we will control hate speech on social media. The problem is the digital media is taking over formal media and it is important to regulate it,” Chaudhry said.

The minister said a working group, with representatives of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and other security agencies, had been set up to regulate social media platforms, Geo News reported.

The government was planning a new body, Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority, which would enforce regulations for the digital, print and electronic media.

Imran Khan, Sikh
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan is seen during talks in Beijing, China. VOA

“We will monitor social media and work to eliminate fake accounts. People who violate Pakistan’s cyber laws will be prosecuted. We want to encourage discourse and debate in the Pakistani society but that is not possible if people threaten each other over differences of opinion.”

According to Chaudhry, several arrests have been made this week based on misuse of social media to issue fatwas and spread extremist narrative.

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“In the next and coming weeks, you will ensure a strict crackdown on this. People will not be allowed to vent their extremist narrative on social media.”

Meanwhile, the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors in a statement said every media category had its specific issues, nature and operating methods and handling all media categories with one single law would be akin to ignoring ground realities, reported the Express Tribune. (IANS)