Zhao, Andy and Simon DeDeo

Astroturf, or the simulation of grass-roots consensus, is a common component of political propaganda on social media. Previous research of Chinese propaganda has found a complex system of astroturf behind the Great Firewall, but we know little about the corresponding strategies overseas. Here we use machine learning to identify over 18,000 Chinese astroturf accounts, both human- and bot-run, that spread pro-state political propaganda on Twitter. In contrast to internal propaganda, these astroturf accounts focuses on internally-censored topics and is preoccupied with the character assassination of critics. Despite the resources spent on the task, the group is remarkably ineffective: content reaches very few people and results in no chilling effects. This study demonstrates the limitations of authoritarian governments in manipulating opinion online.