Manufacturing Consent in Censored Cyberspace: State-Sponsored Online Commentators on Chinese Internet Forums
27 Pages Posted: 14 Jul 2012 Last revised: 31 Jul 2013
Date Written: 2012
Many studies on online political communication and participation in authoritarian regimes focus on the cat-and-mouse censorship game in which the state and netizens struggle over the limits of what can be discussed and what cannot. Relatively few have systematically traced the process of online discourse competition within the state-imposed boundaries where the state also demonstrates considerable adaptability. To understand the resilience of authoritarian regimes in the new governing realm of cyberspace, it is important to look at the strategies of authoritarian states to manage (rather than simply suppress) online public participation. How do authoritarian states manage public opinion beyond direct censorship? And how do they try to steer online public discussions to their advantage without resorting to coercive power?
This project explores these questions by examining public discussions in Chinese online forums. I argued that, to effectively manufacture consent in the cyberspace, the Chinese propaganda state has adapted itself by establishing an army of fifty cents (state-paid online commentators) who would engage online discussions anonymously. However, this seemingly smart move has produced mixed results: though fifty cents may have managed to increase the state’s PR effectiveness on specific issues, it often backfires by increasing netizens’ distrust in the state, which in turn ironically suppresses regime-supporters’ voices with netizens trying to avoid being labeled as state agents.
Keywords: authoritarianism, propoganda state, public relations, online commentators, fifty cents army
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