We live in a modern world dominated by technology, advancements, and social media. Everywhere you go and wherever you look, technology stares you right in the face. Even our own homes are full of gadgets and tech knick-knacks that are supposed to make our lives easier and more comfortable (even when things break down). No need to get your hands dirty when a cool gizmo can do the trick for you, right? And that is the case in most parts of the world (even in developing countries). Technology use is fast becoming the way of life.
We all know China is an emerging global superpower. We have heard of the many mind-blowing advancements happening all over China and just how far their economy has taken them today, but we are also aware that China is a land of many cases of human rights abuse. The country itself is a land full of no-nos. No freedom of expression on a lot of things. Extreme Internet censorship also restricts Chinese citizens from utilizing the full scope of the web and many social media sites are likewise banned in the country. Aside from monitoring the Internet use of its people, the Chinese government also block various website contents they don’t want the public to have access with. Hence, they earned the nickname “The Great Firewall of China.”
IT HAS LONG BEEN suspected that the Chinese government, as part of its effort to control the Internet within its borders, surreptitiously floods social media with fake posts written by a vast army of hired promoters posing as ordinary people. The “50-cent party,” it’s called, because each fake post supposedly earns its author 50 cents.
The phenomenon has been talked and written about widely by journalists, academics, activists, other social-media users, but evidence for these claims has been hard to find—until recently. In a study (to be published this year in the American Political Science Review) that has already prompted a startled response from Beijing, Weatherhead University Professor Gary King, the director of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, confirmed the suspicion: the 50-cent party, he says, is real, although much of the rest of what everyone believed about it is wrong. For one thing, the fake posters likely aren’t paid 50 cents. Most aren’t independent contractors: they’re government employees writing online comments on their off time, and there’s no evidence they earn extra money for it.
More surprising, the purpose of these fabricated posts is not to argue with other social-media users, but to distract them. To perform the study, King and his two coauthors—Jennifer Pan, Ph.D. ’15, and Margaret Roberts, Ph.D. ’14—analyzed a trove of leaked emails sent between local government offices and the propaganda department in one county in southeastern China. “A big giant mess of a dataset,” King recalls, from which the researchers harvested nearly 44,000 fabricated social-media posts from 2013 and 2014. Across all of China, they calculated, that suggests about 450 million posts per year. In those King and his team read, 50-cent party members “are not arguing with anybody at all,” he says. They don’t jump into fights when other users complain about the regime’s repressions or corruption among local officials.
For the average Internet user nowadays, we truly enjoy all the benefits offered by the web, whether it is for work, school or leisure. But after hearing stories like this on how the Chinese government manipulates the contents Chinese citizens have access to – as if blocking certain contents is not enough violation of their human rights – you can’t help but feel bad on how little is there left for the Chinese to explore with on the web. Even social networks that are the favorite past time of many nowadays are not accessible in China for reasons only the government can justify.
Have you ever wondered if your government monitors what you do on your smart phone? If you lived in China, this would be an every-day Orwellian reality.
Imagine this: You pay your morning coffee with your phone, and then check into work with a tap of your fingers. You make lunch reservations and transfer your co-worker money for said lunch. You schedule a doctor’s appointment and see your check-up results afterwards. And of course you post your lunch pictures for all of your friends to see, too. All of this happens in one app.
It sounds convenient, doesn’t it? But what happens when every single step of your day is documented in that app? This scenario is already everyday reality in China: We are talking about WeChat, a messaging app turned into a so-called “super-app,” developed by the Chinese Tech company Tencent.
WeChat has over one billion registered accounts with 850 million active users. The app and its competitors are amassing never-seen amounts of data about its users in China – data that the Chinese government can monitor.
Imagine living in China. Aside from the many restrictions and violations of your human rights, the government also monitors every thing you do on the web. You not only miss out on social media platforms like Facebook and all the many wonderful things you can do with it as well as the equally life-changing network, Twitter, which is also out of reach mainly because of the strong political discourse happening on these channels.
It seems as if the government is limiting Western influence on its people in every means possible, so the government ensures the people follow all the policies of the government without any complaints. This self-regulation likewise ensures the Chinese people promote and support Chinese businesses and industries first, which consequently boosts the nation’s economy. When the Chinese people don’t have access to more liberal contents on the web, the government have no or little explaining to do and life goes on within the great walls of China.