Authoritarians Distract Rather than Debate

It’s long been known that the Chinese government hires people to support the government with fabricated posts on social media. In China these people are known as the “50c party”, so called because the posters were rumored to be paid 50 cents (5 jiao or about $.08) to write the posts. The precise nature and extent of the 50c party has heretofore been unknown. But in an amazing new paper, Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts (KPR) uncover a lot of new information using statistical sleuthing and some unusual and controversial real world sleuthing.

KPR’s data-lever is an archive of leaked emails from the Propaganda Office of Zhanggong. The archive included many 50c posters who were sending links and screenshots of their posts to the central office as evidence of their good work. Using these posts, KPR are able to trace the posters though many social media accounts and discover who the posters are and what they are posting about. Both pieces of information reveal surprises.

First, the posters are government workers paid on salary not, as the 50c phrase suggests, piece-rate workers. Second, and more importantly, it has long been assumed that propaganda posts would support the government with praise or criticize critics of the government. Not so. In fact, propaganda posts actively steer away from controversial issues. Instead, the effort appears to be to distract (especially to distract the people from organizing collective action; thus distraction campaigns peak around times and places where collective action like marches and protests might become focal). KPR write:

Distraction is a clever and useful strategy in information control in that an argument in almost any human discussion is rarely an effective way to put an end to an opposing argument. Letting an argument die, or changing the subject, usually works much better than picking an argument and getting someone’s back up…

Debate is about appealing to an individual’s reason; debate is thus implicitly individualistic, respectful of rights and epistemically egalitarian. (As I argued earlier, respect for the truth is tied to individualism because any person may have truth and reason on their side.) Authoritarians don’t care about these things and so they lie and distract with impunity and without shame. In this case, the distraction is done subtly.

From the initial archive, KPR are able to create a statistical picture of 50c posters. In one of the most remarkable parts of the paper they use this picture to identify many other plausible 50c posters not in the original archive. Then KPR test their identification with a kind of academic catfish–essentially they trick the 50c posters into self-identifying. It’s at this point that KPR’s paper begins to read more like the description of a CIA op than a standard academic paper.

We began by creating a large number of pseudonymous social media accounts. This required many research assistants and volunteers, having a presence on the ground in China at many locations across the country, among many other logistically challenging complications. We conducted the survey via “direct messaging” on Sina Weibo, which enables private communication from one account to another. With IRB permission, we do not identify ourselves as researchers and instead pose, like our respondents, as ordinary citizens.

Using their own fake accounts, KPR directly message people they think are 50c posters with a message along the lines of:

I saw your comment, it’s really inspiring, I want to ask, do you have any public opinion guidance management, or online commenting experience?

The question is phrased in a positive way and it uses the official term “public opinion guidance” rather than the 50c term which has a negative connotation. Amazingly, 59% of the people KPR identify as 50c posters answer yes, essentially outing themselves.

KPRNow, one might wonder whether such a question has evidentiary value but KPR do a clever validation exercise. First, they ask the same question to people from the original leaked archive, people whom KPR know are actual 50c posters. Second, they ask the same question of people who are very unlikely to be 50c posters. The result is that 57% of the known 50c posters answer the question, yes. Almost exactly the same percentage (59%) as in the predicted 50c sample. At the same time, only 19% of the posters known not to be 50c answer yes (that doesn’t mean that 19% are 50c but rather that 19% is a measure of the noise created by asking the question in a subtle way). What’s important is that the large 40 point difference gives good statistical grounds for validating the predicted 50c sample.

Using this kind of analysis and careful, documented, extrapolation, KPR:

…find a massive government effort, where every year the 50c party writes approximately 448 million social media posts nationwide. About 52.7% of these posts appear on government sites. The remaining 212 million posts are inserted into the stream of approximately 80 billion total posts on commercial social media sites, all in real time. If these estimates are correct, a large proportion of government web site comments, and about one of every 178 social media posts on commercial sites, are fabricated by the government. The posts are not randomly distributed but, as we show in Figure 2, are highly focused and directed, all with specific intent and content.

As if this weren’t enough, an early version of KPR’s paper leaked and when the Chinese government responded, KPR became part of the story that they had meant to observe. The government’s response is now in turn used in this paper to verify some of KPR’s arguments. Very meta.

It took courage to write this paper. I do not think any of the authors will be traveling to China any time soon.


Thankfully, in the U.S., it works like this - 'For example, Trump’s first news conference as president-elect last week featured a crowd of paid staffers who cheered his every statement, creating a false picture for viewers.

After all, his public image as reflected in media coverage is perhaps his highest priority. And he has assembled plenty of expert help.'

I couldn't get there, but I was cheering at home. Sorta neat how he made people forget Obama's farewell speech; I watched that and it was a real snoozer. I also listened to David Axelrod's interview of Obama and then the start of Obama on NPR and I got the message. I couldn't get things accomplished because of Rush Limbaugh and those intransigent Republicans. Somehow he forgot about those vanished majorities in the House and Senate.

Of course, you were doing what the Chinese were supposedly doing - distracting. As far as the paper and the authors, it's interesting and they were bold for smoking out the Chicoms.

Given that everything that happened up til about Dec 2015 was Bush's fault, and everything afterwards is Trump's fault.... very soon, no one will remember Obama was ever even President. A perfect vanishing act.

That's the Limbaugh theory in action. Obama was never responsible for anything - he was just fighting the system.

Obama: "I'm sticking it to the Man!"
Everybody Else: "Uh, you ARE the Man..."

Right wingers are such dishonest garbage.

Least they're not the ones that lose sure-fire elections because they blew up so many other countries.

Our very own distraction artist makes his appearance.

Yeah, Trump's TOTALLY the only one who pulls this sort of stunt:

On the other hand, it's entirely possible that Demand Protest is a great big hoax. I got zero results when I searched for "Demand Protest, LLC" on California's business search website:

Yep, it's a hoax and it was outed on tv by none other than Tucker Carlson of Fox News:

Hillary? Is that you? Nobody did that better than you and even so, you could barely get 20 people in a room.

P-A's tired false equivalency game is often amusing. I love how someone's hatred of the US can lead them to down play the Nazi's crimes.

China has just "disappeared" an official who said something bad about Mao on social media. And arrested an academic who was a little too blunt on the same topic.

You know, the two really are not the same.

Most people in America has not idea how intrusive and abusive can be an autocratic regime. No idea. The things so many of them say about America or Western Europe is amazing for those of us who have experienced a real autocracy.

Your people have no guns. Death scares the government. Why dont you go back to YOUR COUNTRY and fight for your peoples rights? Instead you come to MY COUNTRY and tell me what i dont know. Excuse me, fuck off!

I am thankful to all the Hondurans and Guatemalans I met along the way this last year. They cherished that freedom enough to help the US defend it.

And turned around to do the same at home.
The Clinton regime suffers two defeats this year! Finally, regime change where it's most needed!

Prior test. That was an amazing comment! That evil trump is so fake . You write so well, do you have any public opinion guidance experience?
Maybe you should move up to tv, you are that good. I mean to catch trump, and to be so aware of everthing around you like you are. Amazing simply amazing its times like these i wish i had more thumbs.

Of course, propaganda is propaganda, whether it's funded by the government or by billionaires with an ax to grind.

No. Public money belongs to the taxpayers and is entrusted to policymakers to be used for the good of the community. If somebody wants to use their own money to promote some message, you may object to its content. But if politicians want to take your money to promote their own message, that's theft. Not all taxation is theft, but taxation to promote one's personal agenda certainly is.

If somebody's who's a member of the local church uses his next paycheck to fly to Vegas, and party with strippers, we may all *tsk* *tsk*. If the reverend embezzles money from the church coffers to do the same, that's a whole other league.

That's the theory (if not always the practice) of US government, but I think the Chinese government runs on a somewhat different theory.

Shouldn't the topic be something else, rather than government social media comments?

Or the minimum wage, but not property zoning?

I wonder if Mr. 50 Cent will sue the Chicoms for trademark infringement. Maybe after he deals with Soulja Boy.

you think you are, but its incredibly tedious.

The 50c moniker was a little strained - I thought they were Chinese rap fans.

It's, not its. But thank you for the constructive criticism.

Its another distraction ;-)

Nathan and prior_approval aren't getting piece rates?

I thought you were getting piece-rates from opus dei to save us from the "homosexual scourge"

This kind of stuff is common in the US too. I know someone who was hired by a company to post comments on news stories and Facebook posts. They were given scripts to use and quotas. It was like a telemarketing job selling steak knives. They hire college kids and work them like dogs until they quit. The person in this example worked for an outfit that was connected to the Bush people in some way.

We know Clinton used all sorts of propaganda tricks. During the primary, you could see the paid commenters turn up on a Bernie story. It was like watching the tide come in. They would show up in waves.. She also planted people in the audience to ask her questions and they rigged the debates, of course. Like the polling companies and political ad makers, my guess is the comment farms serve both parties and probably the government at times.

My high school social studies teacher was paid, while in college, to be a pro-Nixon demonstrator. He had been at Whittier College and Tricky Dick wanted "students for himself" from his old school. My teacher never forgot, and taught every class that came through. There was a big decline in that stuff, as proof of it became more damaging than the benefit. High risk, low reward.

Given that the only people caught recently were on the other side ... that's where I'd look for actual crimes.

Which other side? Bernie's supporters?

Like these guys, for example?

"From grassroots organizations to advocacy groups, we seed the narratives and gather the audience you desire. When your strategy demands paid protest, we organize and bring it to life."

I mean, assuming that Demand Protest isn't a great big hoax...

Fakery created to draw fire away from Correct The Record/make it look more common and impede an investigation.

The comment boards at certain Catholic blogs are periodically invaded by waves of never-seen-before-won't-see-again commenters making the case for sexual deviance. We've all kind of wondered if they were getting a per diem from some sorosphere agency.

Rule 34—"If it exists, there is porn of it – no exceptions"—is a prevalent meme that states that Internet pornography exists concerning every conceivable topic .. no reason this should not extend to someone trolling it.

The broader Rule 43 - "You can find anything on the Internet if you are willing to look for it long enough." is sufficient to explain most other strange people with strange ideas.

Monkeys. Keyboards.


It's the blurst of times.

by sexual deviance you must be referring to the Catholic practice of little-boy-rape?

I assume these blogs get hits from what, for lack of a better word, I'm going to call the "countercultural internet". If you try to recruit from the vast internet pool of angry young men, don't be surprised when they have outsized libidos. That's sort of what angry young men ARE.

Oh, and if your philosophy revolves heavily around dominance and submission, don't be surprised when a lot of them turn out to be homosexuals.

Are these people seeking to excuse the raping of thousands of children and the subsequent papally sanctioned cover up, or people who favor letting adults make decisions about their own relationships? It's hard to follow who the deviants are in this instance...

There are clearly people who are paid to post on blogs--sort of a think tank for undergrads instead of PhDs. But there are also groups of enthusiasts who either formally or informally organize to comment on blogs, news sites, Twitter, etc.

The tools we use to have conversations on the internet are generally really easy to disrupt--enough so that a obsessive crazy person or two with a lot of time on their hands can disrupt most conversations. People who are paid to disrupt the conversation, or troll it, or divert it to acceptable-to-their-employers ideas, have little trouble defeating most of the defenses we have.


"This kind of stuff is common in the US too."

yes, the U.S. Federal government employs a full time army of information specialists, public-affairs officers, etc, to do this same kind thing. Their job is to make the government and their specific agency look good with exaggerated and sometimes fabricated communications. And to counter any critics or negative publicity.

The U.S. Office of Management and Budget found over 50,000 Federal employees doing full time work that would be considered purely 'public relations' in the private sector. Literally an army of propaganda specialists, serving government politicians and bureaucrats -- but not the citizens,


"This kind of stuff is common in the US too."

It's not a secret anymore. Democratic groups have come out of the closet and are actively advertising.

"Donald Trump may have a point about paid protesters: Job ads running in more than 20 cities offer $2,500 per month for agitators to demonstrate at this week’s presidential inauguration events.

Demand Protest, a San Francisco company that bills itself as the “largest private grassroots support organization in the United States,” posted identical ads Jan. 12 in multiple cities on seeking “operatives.”
“Get paid fighting against Trump!” says the ad."

I love the doublespeak phrase "private grassroots" for an organization hiring protesters.

Actually, I suspect this is a hoax and the ads aren't real, but the timing is perfect for this post. ;)

I look forward to them nailing that one down. Get a tv crew out there and trail it back to a live person.

If it is real, it should not be hard.

California SOS never heard of them, but WHOIS has:

Yeah, since their website clearly states their legal name as "Demand Protest, LLC", it's very odd that California SOS has never heard of them:

(I hate it when I fall for hoaxes...)

There's a name for fake grass roots campaigns - astroturfing. We saw this back in the 2012 campaign with the Occupy protesters, a ragtag bunch of loonies backed with union/Democrat money.

That was real, but hijacked. I remember attending the first meeting with Micah and Justine Tunney. It would've only been a tenth of what showed up if it had been growing naturally.
It spooked someone bad, and all of a sudden there were hundreds of unknowns flocking to every event. look up progressive stack on youtube to see what really went on. My guess is the powers-that-be were afraid of receiving a second Iraq War-sized mass national protest. So to burn it out faster, they actually filled it, and with so many different organisations both real and not hitting at one time, each with separate grievances, it sowed all kinds of confusion.

The original occupy were the "bomb-throwing anarchist" types and the actual far left (the sort that would read things like Colorlines, Black Agenda Report, The Progressive, Counterpunch, The Jacobin, etc) with a couple of random WNs like Samuel Francis not these sick 'loony' weirdos. Those came later, after it initially did well challenging the bailouts and other corporate malfeasance. Those initial 15000 were the real deal, because they were from all over. If you'd given us the politic quadrant test the whole thing would probably be filled. Then it exploded on social media after the pepper spraying incidents went viral and all these AFLs got bussed in, and control was quickly lost.
Outside of the US, there were some authentic groups as well that spawned from the coverage, like Occupy Nigeria and London, but it was largely killed within the US by the time the first Portland protest ended.
so yeah, astroturfing is a serious damn problem for everyone. They got us good. Everyone arriving/participating after the 30th was following the astroturfers' lead, not ours.
A lot of sympathetic indie papers like Globalresearch kept saying we weren't dead, trying to keep morale up, but it was too late. Just barely reached the 1 year anniversary.

Nowadays since the threat to corporate america has abated, it's back to being how it was supposed to be before the turfing, but it really doesn't have much power unless the sole topic is the TPP.
One thing that's interesting though, is that the spirit somewhat lived on with Hong Kong's "umbrella revolution," I know of a lot of the old group that went there to help as soon as it began to prevent the same thing from happening. The police got so violent out there because their astroturfers couldn't make any headway.

You can apply for a Hasbara Fellowship here:

It shouldn't be hard to do a study of paid pro-Israel online activism since a fair number of people in American academia have likely done it as a summer job or the like.

Here's my hypothesis: The paid pro-Israel people are more likely than the paid pro-China people, who tend to try to change the subject to a more harmonious topic, to engage in outright argument with the intention of winning the argument.

If that's true, perhaps it would be due to differences between political systems.

Alternatively, it could be due to personality differences: the Chinese traditionally have prized harmony, while Israelis tend to like to argue.

It should be fun to research, but, for some reason, Israel's fairly public Hasbara system is a rare topic of interest among Americans interested in other countries' Hasbara systems.

Is this a tool of authoritarian government, or the authoritarian mind-set, versus that of the individualist mindset? If so then one might extent the analysis to other settings -- USA, Russia, UK or EU, Chile....and see how the posting pans out. Do the "minions" seem to be into distraction or refutation of argument. Could this be a new tool in the whole characterization of different societies/governments in terms of their being more free versus authoritarian?

As a counterpoint Carl Schmitt made the exact same argument about bourgeoise liberalism that it distracted politics from the coherent, decisive decisions that were required via endless conversation and distraction. The idea that this is a unique authoritarian device is laughable.

Nothing new about this "tool", the Romans already knew how important distraction is: Panem et circenses

Great stuff.

But it would have been a lot easier to just email their John-Podesta-Equivalent with a note saying "Click this link! Go ahead! You know you want to!!"

Thanks for linking to the next amazing iteration of the KPR research agenda -- just wanted to point out that the third author is Margaret Roberts (with a final "s"), not "Robert."

"Margaret Roberts" was the maiden name of Margaret Thatcher. Maybe she is still trolling the Chinese.

Very interesting. Thanks for the summary.

Great post Alex!

Fascinating. China's attempt to control information and people in the internet age is one of the more interesting stories today.

And it's exclusively China.

"Distraction is a clever and useful strategy in information control": what's that got to do with Putin owning Trump?

The indisputable proof that Trump is not a puppet of Putin is LOOK! A SQUIRREL!!!

How about a related issue- the labeling of online commenters whose opinions you don't like as paid trolls for China/Russia/Israel/CIA//etc.? I think this is a much bigger problem. People who had been accused of being paid trolls for one entity or another must outnumber actual paid trolls by at least 1000 to 1.

That's just what a paid troll would say. ;)

I blame the Reverse Vampires.


' I do not think any of the authors will be traveling to China any time soon.'

They wrote on this before:
and one of them was in China yesterday (as per the tweet feed)

I swear I have noticed similar spam on certain Amazon product reviews. Usually, no name brands with 5 to 15 reviews. The reviews are all 5* and are space about 3 to 4 weeks apart. I can't prove it - just a gut feeling some time.

In the main post we learn that distraction is a clever and effective tool for misdirecting the conversation on the web. In the comments we hear about essentially everything except authoritarian intrusion into the web comments section. Conclusion: authoritarian governments are using these distractors to ensure that Marginal Revolution never makes any difference. You trolls know who you are.

Hmmm...using distraction to defuse hot issues.

Like dealing with a lousy recovery and poor job growth in the years after the recession by encouraging "Occupy Wall Street" and talking about the "top 1%." It is more fun to talk about the rich than ask why people remain poor. Inequality is a distraction from the issue of prosperity.

Or dealing with five million foreclosures by suing big banks, rather than doing something about disclosures?

Or distracting black city-dwellers from the issue of no jobs by creating an issue of police violence, after two decades of declining homicide?

Pro-tip: SJW, manspreading, gender neutral bathrooms, transgender rights were all just distractions.

I do not think author has properly considered that aggressive US behavior towards China intended as distraction for people from massive inequality.

Libertarians are too intelligent for liberals BS. Vox had no problem with Obama's use of executive power to profligate his extremism.

There's not really any such thing as a Liberaltarian. At least anymore than a conservatarian.

That being said, I'm sure there could be some kind of useful alliance between Libertarians and Liberals, as long as, Liberals are willing to forgo demands for bigger government, higher taxes and more regulation. If Liberals aren't willing to forgo any of this, then I'm not sure what an alliance would amount to that would be significantly different than the two groups operating independently.

And frankly, this piece reads like a standard Vox piece. The author completely fails to mention that one of the first acts of the Trump administration is repealing Obamacare. That's something with widespread Libertarian support. Indeed, most Libertarian's are of the mind that the Republicans won't go far enough in repealing Obamacare and instead leave too much of it intact.

Furthermore, his list of items that Liberals and Libertarians can agree on, are laughable. Most Liberals would disagree with the list and most Conservatives would agree to it. So, it's a non-starter from the Left's point of view.

Damn. Here I've been doing this stuff for nothing.

Lots of new commenters responding to the article. Maybe you can help me. There is a word in chinese for a corrupt functionary that is used every time someone refers to them. What is it?

Great post.

I wonder though if there is not a minor mistake here: "At the same time, only 19% of the posters known not to be 50c answer yes". The data on the side says 19% of the random posters, which is different. How could one know for sure anyway that someone is not a 50c? Of course, that doesn't change the rest of the argument.

Even while debating propaganda people forget its objective and why it's so effective. It's just classic divide and conquer -- or -- "Make them debate anything other than policy." -- it's like watching players on the same team argue and fight against each other during a live game while the other team piles up the points.. lol

The global issue of our time is extreme income inequality; when the majority loose hope for a better life things get real dark real fast. How about we debate that?

Global inequality is on a long term decline, which shows no signs of reversing. This isn't even regular wrong, this is superhuman level wrong.

Wonder who pays for this site's crap comments?

When I saw the title, I thought this was going to be about the bureaucrats in the EU threatening Britain. Because that's a thing too.

Disable your comments, you're being spammed by trolls possibly from ycombinator

Equating what happens in the West to what happens in China is ridiculous. In the West I'm sure you have paid posters, but you can easily find a website that either exposes the fake posters or presents the opposite opinion. In China, the paid poster view is the only show in town, and there is no alternative.

None of this nonsense either about Chinese people being able to hop the Great Firewall at's extremely onerous and well below 1% of the population go through the trouble. Most think every country has a censorship system comparable to China's.

Great article, Alex, and serious kudos to KPR for having the courage to do this.

Cass Sunstein called for the government to engage in "cognitive infiltration" of political conversations it didn't like, such as conspiracy theorist chatter.

Of course, there's a long history of government-paid double agents provocateur causing all sorts of mischief, such as assassinating the prime minister of Russia in 1911. Whether that would be a bug or a feature in Sunstein's plan was not stated.

Chalk one up for Aldous Huxley.

A number of problems with the paper, most notably,
1) You cannot extrapolate from one small and somewhat remote county to the whole country
2) One nationalistic tabloid does not equal the Chinese government:
3) If the goal is to distract, using bots is much more efficient; not using bots means this is hardly a well-coordinated strategy

The biggest problem with the paper is that they don't have categorization numbers for a random sample of Weibo posts to compare with real/purported 50-cent accounts' posts. The only comparison they do is to a group of posts accused of being 50-cent posts, which is unlikely to be representative. Maybe most Weibo posts fall into "cheerleading".

I find one thing extremely fishy in the responses to the question that was asked.

I saw your comment, it’s really inspiring, I want to ask, do you have any public opinion guidance management, or online commenting experience?

There are actually two questions asked here. Do you have experience in
a) public opinion guidance management
b) online commenting

A "yes" answer can refer to either one of the two. Since we can safely assume that most users wouldn't be first time commenters, the "yes" answer is not surprising. Obviously this wouldn't the first comment for most people. It's shocking that such experienced researchers made such a basic error. Am I missing something here?

Secondly, why on Earth would 50c commenters out themselves voluntarily. The entire purpose of the so-called 50c army is that they should seem like common people.

The third problem I see in this paper is that the dataset is from Zhanggong only, while deductions are drawn for the whole of China.

Collecting data is not very difficult. Deductive reasoning from that data and identifying patterns - these are the real challenges. But no matter - this is China. You believe what you want to believe.

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