China is manipulating social media to sway public opinion by flooding it with comments by paid supporters, according to a new report by Harvard academics.
The study, led by Gary King from Harvard's department of government, uses leaked documents to illustrate how China's policing of social media is now taking the form of distraction and cheerleading rather than censorship.
Findings within the report say that the Chinese government and its army of helpers write 488 million fake posts a year, the vast majority of which are crafted to look like they come from ordinary people.
The majority of the posts take a passive approach and do not attempt to argue with critical commentators of the government.
"They do not step up to defend the government, its leaders, and their policies from criticism, no matter how vitriolic; indeed, they seem to avoid controversial issues entirely," said the paper.
"Letting an argument die, or changing the subject, usually works much better than picking an argument and getting someone's back up."
To ensure maxamium effectiveness the 488 million posts per year are published during the busiest times on social media or when a controversial issue is being widely debated.
The report concludes that the practice allows the government to "actively control opinion without having to censor as much as they might otherwise."
China has been widely criticised for its censorship of social media over the years and so by appearing to drop the harsh policing it has been able to portray itself in a more appealing light to prospective western partners which is a major focus for its government.