Researchers from Harvard, Stanford, and UC San Diego recently published a study in the American Political Science Review journal about the infamous 50 Cent Army. In case you're unfamiliar, 50c is a group of "undercover pro-government Internet commenters" paid by the Chinese government to "neutralize undesirable public opinion by pushing pro-Party views through chat rooms and web forums." In other words, State-sponsored social media trolls. Their name suggests the rumor that members are paid 50 cents per online comment.
The new study, titled "How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, Not Engaged Argument", claims to be "the first systematic empirical evidence for the content of 50c party posts, their authors, and the government’s strategic objectives."
As to the size and structure of the 50c operation, the researchers conclude:
It…appears that the 50c party is mostly composed of government employees contributing part time outside their regular jobs, not, as has been claimed, ordinary citizens paid piecemeal for their work. This, nevertheless, is still an enormous workforce that, we estimate, produces 448 million 50c posts per year.
More illuminating is the authors' conclusion about the underlying strategy of 50c:
Since disrupting discussion of grievances [against the government] only limits information that is otherwise useful to the regime, the leaders have little reason to censor it, argue with it, or flood the net with opposing viewpoints. What is risky for the regime, and therefore vigorously opposed through large-scale censorship and huge numbers of fabricated social media posts, is posts with collective action potential.
Contrary to common assumption, the Chinese government doesn't care that much about the millions of individual complaints about government abuses being lodged in the public record. What they care about - and what their censorship and "reverse" censorship efforts are directed against - is any sentiment that could grow into an organized movement.
It's safe to say the same holds true of U.S.-backed trolling - which, yes, does happen. We know, for example, that the Pentagon has spent millions of dollars trying to manipulate social media.
Anyone who has spent any time on social media, online forums, or popular news sites can spot a troll from a mile away. I've always wondered why these trolls exist - certainly they don't think anyone will be convinced by their grammatically incorrect ramblings and half-baked arguments? But of course the purpose of trolling, especially of the government variety, isn't to win an argument. It's to create confusion and derail momentum. The strategy of government trolling is to create enough "noise" that attentions are redirected. It's possible, even, that the strategy is not to quell collective action, per se, but simply to redirect it. Towards, for instance, "racial injustice," "economic inequality," "Islamic extremism," "fake news," Russia, etc. This way, everyone's brewing dissatisfaction with problems that were caused by government policy is deflected away from government and can even strengthen calls for more government policy.
On a final note, it's interesting to reflect on the subtler ways a large, centralized state degrades the integrity and usefulness of the Internet. Just imagine what the Internet in China would be like without the Chinese government. For starters, there would be 448 million fewer trolling comments every year eating up bandwidth and taxpayer money.