The 50 cent army. The Chinese government paying Chinese users to make nearly 450 million social media comments a year to sway opinion.

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Internet researchers have long known that the Chinese government manipulates content on the Internet. Not only does it censor heavily, but it also employs hundreds of thousands of people, the so-called 50 cent army, to write comments on the Internet.

New research by Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts (whom I’ll refer to as KPR for convenience) uses sophisticated techniques of gathering and analyzing massive amounts of data to tell us what is going on.

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The fake commenters are being paid by the government

It’s hard to figure out exactly who is being paid to comment by the Chinese government and who is not. While accusations of membership in the 50 cent army are rife on social media, these accusations are at best unreliable and at worst downright misleading. However, KPR were able to take advantage of a major leak of information to figure out what is happening. A blogger released a trove of emails from the propaganda office of a mid-sized unit of China’s local government. These emails included a little over 40,000 unambiguous examples of 50 cent army comments. KPR were able to use these comments to draw conclusions about how fake commenting works. They were also able to train a specialized machine learning algorithm to hunt down and identify similar comments on Chinese social media so that they could get a broader understanding of the ecology of government-sponsored comments in China.

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