Weapon of mass distraction: 488m social media posts faked by Chinese officials

Hundreds of millions of social media posts are faked by Chinese officials every year, researchers claim. The messages – as many as 488 million a year and disguised to look like they are from ordinary web users – are created to influence public opinion and to distract people from other news, it is claimed. They were rumoured to be posted by members of the so-called Fifty Cent Club, supposedly named because they were paid 50 cents (1 US cent) for each one they write. But the Harvard researchers said posting was probably just an every day part of officials’ duties and there was no evidence they were paid by the message.

Letting an argument die, or changing the subject, usually works much better than picking an argument and getting someone’s back up

Harvard researcher Gary King

The study is said to be one of the first in-depth looks into the inner workings of China’s push to influence public opinion. It was based on a trove of government emails, spreadsheets and work reports from a propaganda office in central China leaked online in 2014. However, the report said the approach was subtler than first thought. Rather than shouting down critics, the posts are intended to distract, usually by changing the subject. “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 researchers wrote.