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China’s fake wall of social media posts is driving its citizens to distraction

A new study has revealed the lengths China’s government is going to in order to distract its web-savvy citizens from their public officials’ bad publicity.

The groundbreaking report reveals that the state’s internet propaganda machine (known as the Fifty Cent Party, in reference to the amount per post its workers are paid) churns out a staggering 488 million fake social media posts a year.

Instead of pinpointing the government’s online detractors and taking them to task, the Fifty Cent Party is more interested in rehashing state information. The country’s active social networks are consequently clogged with fake posts celebrating the Communist Party, its officials, and its past glories.

Related: No surprise, Trump and Clinton have the most fake Twitter followers among candidates

Co-authored by academics from Harvard, Stanford, and the University of California, the report describes itself as the first large-scale empirical analysis of the activity of the Fifty Cent Party.

“Our evidence indicates … that the 50c party engages in almost no argument of any kind and is instead devoted primarily to distraction through cheerleading for the state,” states the study. “It also appears that the 50c party is mostly composed of government employees … not, as has been claimed, ordinary citizens paid piecemeal for their work.”

In order to conduct their research, the authors used leaked archives of emails from 2013 and 2014, attributed to the Internet Propaganda Office of a Chinese district known as Zhanggong.

To crack the archive’s multiple formats, the academics built their own computer code with which they extracted 2,341 emails, reports Bloomberg. Inside those dispatches were located tens of thousands of Fifty Cent Party posts, which were then used to identify the style of other propaganda posts.

Cross-referencing the names from the leaked emails with online social media profiles, they determined the identities of many of the posts’ authors. They chose not to disclose any of the personal information because it did not align with their academic pursuit.

As noted in the study, social media is as popular in China as any other region in the world. Popular Chinese microblogging platform Sina Weibo currently boasts 222 million users and is utilized by notable Western personalities, such as Stephen Hawking, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Apple CEO Tim Cook.

It is, however, not unusual to find fake posts on Western social media platforms as well. Although the likes of Twitter and Instagram are banned in China, they are still home to their fair share of spam accounts at home, which are also dedicated to churning out bogus comments. Back in 2014, Twitter, according to its own (conservative) estimates, had approximately 13 million fake profiles — which was, at the time, equivalent to 5 percent of its entire user base.

Neither is it uncommon for American politicians to employ their own, well-oiled online propaganda machines. It was recently revealed that Hillary Clinton has a PAC that spends millions defending her against her web detractors. Meanwhile, other primary candidates have built organic networks of online allies that rally their (extremely vocal) support across the web.