Empirical Analysis Of Social Media

How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument by Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts. American Political Science Review, 2017. (Supplementary Appendix)


The Chinese government has long been suspected of hiring as many as 2,000,000 people to surreptitiously insert huge numbers of pseudonymous and other deceptive writings into the stream of real social media posts, as if they were the genuine opinions of ordinary people. Many academics, and most journalists and activists, claim that these so-called “50c party” posts vociferously argue for the government’s side in political and policy debates. As we show, this is also true of the vast majority of posts openly accused on social media of being 50c. Yet, almost no systematic empirical evidence exists for this claim, or, more importantly, for the Chinese regime’s strategic objective in pursuing this activity. In the first large scale empirical analysis of this operation, we show how to identify the secretive authors of these posts, the posts written by them, and their content. We estimate that the government fabricates and posts about 448 million social media comments a year. In contrast to prior claims, we show that the Chinese regime’s strategy is to avoid arguing with skeptics of the party and the government, and to not even discuss controversial issues. We infer that the goal of this massive secretive operation is instead to regularly distract the public and change the subject, as most of the these posts involve cheerleading for China, the revolutionary history of the Communist Party, or other symbols of the regime. We discuss how these results fit with what is known about the Chinese censorship program, and suggest how they may change our broader theoretical understanding of “common knowledge” and information control in authoritarian regimes.

I differ from the authors on some of their conclusions but this is an excellent example of empirical as opposed to wishful analysis of social media.

Wishful analysis of social media includes the farcical claims that social media is an effective recruitment tool for terrorists. Too often claimed to dignify with a citation but never with empirical evidence, only an author’s repetition of the common “wisdom.”

In contrast, King et al. are careful to say what their analysis does and does not support, finding in a number of cases, the evidence contradicts commonly held thinking about the role of the Chinese government in social media.

One example I found telling was the lack of evidence that anyone is paid for pro-government social media comments.

In the authors’ words:

We also found no evidence that 50c party members were actually paid fifty cents or any other piecemeal amount. Indeed, no evidence exists that the authors of 50c posts are even paid extra for this work. We cannot be sure of current practices in the absence of evidence but, given that they already hold government and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) jobs, we would guess this activity is a requirement of their existing job or at least rewarded in performance reviews.
… (at pages 10-11)

Here I differ from the author’s “guess”

…this activity is a requirement of their existing job or at least rewarded in performance reviews.

Kudos to the authors for labeling this a “guess,” although one expects the mainstream press and members of Congress to take it as written in stone.

However, the authors presume positive posts about the government of China can only result from direct orders or pressure from superiors.

That’s a major weakness in this paper and similar analysis of social media postings.

The simpler explanation of pro-government posts is a poster is reporting the world as they see it. (Think Occam’s Razor.)

As for sharing them with the so-called “propaganda office,” perhaps they are attempting to curry favor. The small number of posters makes it difficult to credit their motives (unknown) and behavior (partially known) as representative for the estimated 2 million posters.

Moreover, out of a population that nears 1.4 billion, the existence of 2 million individuals with a positive view of the government isn’t difficult to credit.

This is an excellent paper that will repay a close reading several times over.

Take it also as a warning about ideologically based assumptions that can mar or even invalidate otherwise excellent empirical work.


Additional reading:

From the Gary King’s webpage on the article:

This paper follows up on our articles in Science, “Reverse-Engineering Censorship In China: Randomized Experimentation And Participant Observation”, and the American Political Science Review, “How Censorship In China Allows Government Criticism But Silences Collective Expression”.

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