China s government fabricates about 488 million social media comments a year -- nearly the same as one day of Twitter s total global volume -- in a massive effort to distract its citizens from bad news and sensitive political debates, according to a study.Three scholars led by Gary King, a political scientist at Harvard University who specializes in using quantitative data to analyze public policy, ran the first systematic study of China s online propaganda workers, known as the Fifty Cent Party because they are popularly believed to be paid by the government 50 Chinese cents for every social media post.Contrary to popular perception inside China, the Fifty Cent Party avoids engaging in debates with critics and doesn t make fun of foreign governments.

"In retrospect, this makes a lot of sense -- stopping an argument is best done by distraction and changing the subject rather than more argument -- but this had previously been unknown, King said in an e-mail.Although those who post comments are often rumored to be ordinary citizens, the researchers were surprised to find that nearly all the posts were written by workers at government agencies including tax and human resource departments, and at courts.

The archive included a mix of multiple e-mail formats, programs and attachments that required King and his team to build customized computer code to crack the archive and deploy automated text analysis and extraction.

Typically, the Fifty Cent Party workers would go into action right after some kind of social unrest or protest and try to distract public opinion with a wave of social media that researchers said was interesting, but innocuous and unrelated topic.

They researchers said they deduced the rules for the messages: First, don t engage in controversial issues.

Second, stop discussion about potential collective or street protests by active distraction.

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