A study released by a Harvard University research team indicates that the Chinese government is doing some significant astroturfing. Over 400 million fake social media comments could be produced by the Chinese government every year, with the goal of altering public perception of the country.
The “50 Cent” Party
The 50 Cent Party is a group of paid social media commentators, who are given 50 cents per pro-Chinese post. The 50 Cent Party may start their own threads or may begin engaging in existing ones, with the express goal of convincingly defending Chinese policies, government, and culture. Though it’s long been known that the 50 Cent Party existed — and, to a lesser extent, that they were incredibly prolific — the new Harvard University study gives an actual measurement to the activity.
Not Just China
China isn’t the only country engaging in heavy astroturfing. Russia has often been accused of this as well. Many well-known cases of astroturfing have been perpetrated by private companies. In 2006, Walmart engaged in an astroturfing campaign that appeared to be a blog run by two consumers. In 2007, Ask.com launched a campaign against Google that appeared to be user-supported, but was actually a marketing campaign by the company itself. The Hillary Clinton campaign has also been accused of astroturfing through social media.
The Problem of Astroturfing
Public perception is often influenced by the media. The goal of astroturfing is to change public perception by flooding media with the desired point of view. Studies have shown that people are inclined to agree with the majority even if they believe that the majority is wrong. This is an instinct that his a holdover from humanity’s tribal origins; it’s usually more beneficial to cooperate than to be correct. Thus, astroturfing is actually incredibly powerful. As long as an individual is convinced that a majority feels a certain way, they too will probably feel that way.
Though astroturfing may be morally problematic, it also can’t be stopped. The Chinese government isn’t doing anything strictly wrong or illegal — the only way they would be is if they were violating the individual Terms of Service for the websites that they are posting on. Propaganda has existed for as long as countries have existed, and social media and the Internet is simply making it far easier to distribute.