How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts

Speaker: Jennifer Pan
Date recorded: Feb 22, 2017
Jennifer Pan on how the Chinese government fabricates social media posts for strategic distraction, not engaged argument.

Jennifer Pan: 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. Jennifer’s research shows that 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, Jennifer’s research reveals how to identify the secretive authors of these posts, the posts written by them, and their content. She and her team estimate that the government fabricates and posts about 448 million social media comments a year. In contrast to prior claims, her research shows 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. Her work infers 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. She will 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.

Jennifer Pan is an Assistant Professor of Communication, Assistant Professor, by courtesy, of Political Science and of Sociology at Stanford University. Her research focuses on the politics of authoritarian (non-democratic) countries in the digital age. How autocrats constrain collective action through online censorship, propaganda, and responsiveness. How information proliferation influences the ability of authoritarian regimes to collect reliable information. How public preferences are arranged and formed. She combines experimental and computational methods with large-scale datasets on political activity in China and other authoritarian regimes to examine these questions. Her work has appeared in peer-reviewed journals such as the American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, and Science. She received her Ph.D. from Harvard University’s Department of Government in 2015. She graduated from Princeton University, summa cum laude, in 2004, and until 2009, she was a consultant at McKinsey & Company based in New York and Beijing.