China is known as one of the world’s leaders in propaganda and censorship. The ruling Communist Party runs mass-reaching print and broadcast media networks. Meanwhile, it controls what its people can and can’t see online: The Great Firewall.
But in the age of the Internet and mobile everything, the most influential wing of its propaganda machine isn’t necessarily “fake news.” It’s simply a well-coordinated, government-backed social media campaign that’s not built to spread fear. It’s there to keep the people happy.
That’s the conclusion drawn by three university researchers who conducted an extensive investigation into the social media world on the screens of Chinese residents. By analyzing a leaked email archive depicting how the government operates social media, they found that Beijing was not focusing on refuting critics or defending policies online. Instead, it put its efforts on spreading positive posts about China’s history, culture, and current events.
The findings were published in a research paper titled “How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, Not Engaged Argument.”
Sean Illing of Vox.com conducted an interview with co-author Margaret Roberts of the University of California San Diego.
“Their calculation is pretty simple,” Roberts tells Illing. “If they engage critics on issues that are complicated or reflect poorly on the government, they only amplify the attention those issues receive. So their approach is to ignore the criticisms and shift attention to other topics, and they do that by deluging the internet with positive propaganda.”
That’s not to say it’s all Chinese Disneyland on social media. Enough criticism makes it through to promote the illusion of free discourse, the researchers argue.
Roberts says: “China’s government does its best to distinguish between useful criticisms (the kinds of criticisms that help them figure out how to satisfy the citizenry) and dangerous criticisms (the kinds of criticisms that might lead to mass protest events). They usually wait until there is a possibility for major mobilization against the government before they engage in overt censorship.”
Until then, it’s pretty vanilla. It seems like the opposite of the loud, rage-driven online discourse that armchair Hashtagtivists in the free world have become accustomed to.
And who is directly responsible for this feel-good campaign? According to the researchers, it’s an informal wing of the government comprised of officials posing as ordinary citizens.
Roberts adds, “They want people talking about and responding to content that favors the regime. But they also want people to think that content is coming from civilians and not from the government, which is why most of this is presented as someone’s opinion.”
How many people in this shadow department? It’s rumored to be at around 2 million.