IDSS Distinguished Seminar Series- Gary King (Harvard)
March 7, 2017 | 4:00pm-5:00pm | 32-141


The Chinese government has long been suspected of hiring as many as 2,000,000 people to surreptitiously insert huge numbers of pseudonymous and other deceptive writings into the stream of real social media posts, as if they were the genuine opinions of ordinary people. Many academics, and most journalists and activists, claim that these so-called “50c party” posts vociferously argue for the government’s side in political and policy debates. As we show, this is also true of the vast majority of posts openly accused on social media of being 50c. Yet, almost no systematic empirical evidence exists for this claim, or, more importantly, for the Chinese regime’s strategic objective in pursuing this activity. In the first large scale empirical analysis of this operation, we show how to identify the secretive authors of these posts, the posts written by them, and their content. We estimate that the government fabricates and posts about 448 million social media comments a year. In contrast to prior claims, we show that the Chinese regime’s strategy is to avoid arguing with skeptics of the party and the government, and to not even discuss controversial issues. We infer that the goal of this massive secretive operation is instead to regularly distract the public and change the subject, as most of the these posts involve cheerleading for China, the revolutionary history of the Communist Party, or other symbols of the regime. We discuss how these results fit with what is known about the Chinese censorship program, and suggest how they may change our broader theoretical understanding of “common knowledge” and information control in authoritarian regimes.


Gary King develops and applies empirical methods in many areas of social science research, focusing on innovations that span the range from statistical theory to practical application. His work is widely read across scholarly fields and beyond academia. He was listed as the most cited political scientist of his cohort; among the group of “political scientists who have made the most important theoretical contributions” to the discipline “from its beginnings in the late-19th century to the present”; and on lists of the most highly cited researchers across the social sciences. His work on legislative redistricting has been used in most American states by legislators, judges, lawyers, political parties, minority groups, and private citizens, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court. His work on inferring individual behavior from aggregate data has been used in as many states by these groups, and in many other practical contexts. His contributions to methods for achieving cross-cultural comparability in survey research have been used in surveys in over eighty countries by researchers, governments, and private concerns. King led an evaluation of the Mexican universal health insurance program, which included the largest randomized health policy experiment to date. He has reverse engineered Chinese censorship, and worked on a wide range of other projects. The statistical methods and software he develops are used extensively in academia, government, consulting, and private industry. He is a founder, and an inventor of the original technology for, Learning Catalytics (acquired by Pearson), Crimson Hexagon, Perusall, among others.

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