For years, Chinese netizens have come to disdain an online troll army that populates social media with pro-government propaganda posts.
In reality, not much is known about the “wumao,” or the Fifty Cent Party, and most information about them has been speculative. A new report, however, sheds some light into the inner workings of the widely hated group..
The study released by researchers from Harvard University, Stanford University and the University of California, San Diego on Tuesday confirmed the existence of a “massive secret operation” in China that produces approximately 488 million fake social media posts per year, reported Foreign Policy.
The initiative reportedly aims to “regularly distract the public and change the subject” from political issues that may provoke social unrest or street protests.
Chinese social media has indeed become a battleground between leftists who hope for reconstructed socialism and rightists, or reformists, who are on the side of Western democracy and constitutionalism. Typical online exchanges between the two see leftists labeling the rightists as sellouts while rightists brand the leftists as “50-centers.”
The report labeled 80 percent of the analyzed posts political “cheerleading,” while 13 percent were “non-argumentative praise or suggestions.” This places the “50-centers” in an entirely different group altogether.
Composed mainly of government officials, the group is usually tapped to swamp social media with a barrage of pro-government posts when critical issues arise. There was no evidence found, however, that they are paid 50 cents per post or that they initiate personal attacks on opponents.
“The content of the posts was completely different than what had been assumed by academics, journalists, activists, and participants in social media,” co-author Jennifer Pan told Foreign Policy.
Research on the group began after a leak of 2,700 emails containing correspondence, photos, directories of “Internet commentators,” summaries of commentary work, and records of the online activities of specific individuals, surfaced from the Chinese Internet Information Office in December 2014. The leak exposed deliberate directives to boost Chinese President Xi Jinping’s image and monitor netizens’ activities, among other things.