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China fakes nearly half a billion social media posts annually: study

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Researchers suggest that government employees, not regular citizens, are mostly responsible for paid postings

China's government is creating nearly 490 million fake online posts annually, according to a Harvard University study cited by the Guardian on Friday.

The study claims that many of these posts are posted by government employees paid to distract the public and defuse criticism of the ruling Communist party.

It had been thought that the vast majority of the "Fifty Percent Party", a virtual army of internet "shills" – people paid to make posts designed to simulate grassroots support – were mostly regular civilians. However, the study found that 99.3 percent of the 43,800 posts it examined were government employees.

The study suggested that the posts were usually part of a campaign tied to specific events and periods, such as the flood of posts that coincided with ethnic rioting in 2013.

Researchers used documents leaked from a Chinese propaganda office. According to the study, about half of the 488 million posts are published on government sites, with the other half going to social media networks.

The study also suggested that contrary to previous beliefs, the shills are not trained to engage in debate and thus compel further argument. Instead, they are apparently told to take a positive tone with the goal of simply overwhelming the negative posts and distract readers.

“An argument in almost any human discussion is rarely an effective way to put an end to an opposing argument,” the Guardian quoted the study's authors as writing. “Letting an argument die, or changing the subject, usually works much better than picking an argument and getting someone’s back up (as new parents recognize fast).”

The study noted that China has "more than 1,300 social media companies and websites, and millions of posts authored every day by people all over the country", but that "the Chinese regime imposes extensive controls over of the entire system."

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