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CIRA analyst Maggie Baughman’s work below was the winner of the recent Rhodium ChinaTalk essay contest. Ms. Baughman also discussed her research on the most recent episode of the ChinaTalk podcast.

Almost two decades after China began marshaling its “fifty-cent army” to manipulate public conversation on the internet, the players involved in China’s online “opinion guidance” have changed, heralding a new era of Chinese influence operations on social media. It is time to look beyond the “fifty-cent army” model of paid-per-post propaganda, which has not been seriously re-examined in the last five years. As China’s internet environment has rapidly evolved, so has its ability to influence opinion online, leading to the inevitable questions: who is running China’s online influence campaigns, and how do they work?

To build a new model of Chinese “opinion guidance,” we can look to some of the same sources that scholars used to support the existence of the “50-cent army” in 2015 – government procurement and employment websites. Here, we see a change in the ways that local and central government organs are contracting out social media work: rather than paying individuals to post and promote content along with other government duties, local governments are contracting out social media influence work to private internet companies, who take over all of the agency’s social media operations for a set period of time.

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