China's army of keyboard propagandists have set the standard for manipulating public opinion online - and a growing number of countries are trying the emulate the model.

The iconic image of a man holding his shopping while obstructing the path of a tank in China's Tiananmen Square in 1989 became the defining image of China's censorial government. But in the age of the internet, social media has become the front line in the Communist Party's battle to control and suppress dissent.

The goverment's so called keyboard army overwhelms social media sites with positive stories about the Communist Party - described by researchers as "cheerleading content" - to control the message and drown out criticism and negative stories about the regime.

The unofficial wing of the Chinese government responsible for the program is known as The 50 Cent Party. It allows just enough critical content to maintain the illusion of dissent while diverting attention towards positive propaganda.

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The name reportedly stems from a rumour that the members were each paid 50 cents for every post that helped the government, although there is little evidence to support this theory.

A recent study by researchers at Harvard University, Stanford University and the University of California San Diego conducted what they described as the first large scale empirical analysis of the operation.

The paper titled How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument set out to explore claims the Chinese government employed around two million workers to manipulate the country's social media.

The researchers were able to dissect what they referred to as China's internet propaganda machine with the help of a 2014 leak of hacked e-mails that revealed the extent of the program.

"Basically, they flood the web with overwhelmingly positive content about China's politics and culture and history. What it amounts to is a sprawling distraction campaign rather than an attempt to sell a set of policies or defend the policies of the regime," author Margaret Roberts told Vox this week.

The posts are not necessarily so-called fake news but rather stories that flatter the regime and talk about how great Chinese history is, or how dominant Chinese sports teams are.

"We think the purpose is distraction, because these posts are highly co-ordinated within certain time periods," she added.

"Their approach is to ignore the criticisms and shift attention to other topics, and they do that by deluging the internet with positive propaganda."

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The researchers estimated that the Chinese government fabricates and posts 448 million social media comments a year.

Of course, it's not only China employing this strategy. Russia is the other superpower to embrace the power of disinformation and online propaganda - and other countries are increasingly following suit.

Governments around the world are dramatically increasing their efforts to manipulate information on social media, according to the Freedom on the Net 2017 report, released on Tuesday.

The study of internet freedom in 65 countries found 30 governments are deploying some form of manipulation to distort online information, up from 23 the previous year.

These efforts included paid commentators, trolls, "bots" - the name given to automated accounts - false news sites and propaganda outlets.

The report said online manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 18 countries in the past year, including the United States.

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"The use of paid commentators and political bots to spread government propaganda was pioneered by China and Russia but has now gone global," said Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House which carried out the research.

"The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating," he said.

Freedom House said China was the world's worst abuser of internet freedom for a third straight year, due to stepped-up online censorship, a new law cracking down on anonymity online and the imprisonment of dissidents using the web.

Other countries also increased their efforts to censor and manipulate information, the report said.

This included a "keyboard army" of people employed and paid $10 a day by the Philippine government to amplify the impression of widespread support of a brutal drugs crackdown, and Turkey's use of an estimated 6000 people to counter government opponents on social media.