(Damir Sagolj/Reuters)
Opinion writer

Chinese government leaders, subtle masters of propaganda, seem to have discovered a Sun Tzu formula for taming dissent on the Internet: The best strategy may not be to confront critics directly, but to lull or distract them with a tide of good news.

This intriguing argument is suggested by a recent article in the American Political Science Review titled “How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument.” With complex data, it supports a simple thesis about life in the Internet age: Arguing the facts often doesn’t work; frequently, confrontation just makes people resist harder.

The study analyzes China, but its implications are relevant for America in the age of Donald Trump. As I noted in a column last August, Trump’s supporters sometimes seem impervious to fact-based argument. Trump’s base has mostly stayed loyal since his inauguration, despite his lack of legislative achievements and his impulsive, arguably unethical actions. Why is this so? Read on.

The Chinese case examines the same conundrum explored by Christopher Graves, an Ogilvy Public Relations executive-turned-behavioral scientist. He summed up the limitations of factual argument in an October 2016 article in Harvard Business Review, “When Saying Something Nice Is the Only Way to Change Someone’s Mind.” That’s a lesson Trump critics haven’t learned. Trump makes inflammatory statements, opponents howl in outrage, and his core supporters applaud. The impasse continues.

Let’s get back to China. That country presents an Internet puzzle that was examined by Gary King of Harvard University, Jennifer Pan of Stanford University and Margaret Roberts of the University of California at San Diego. (Their work was highlighted for me by Eileen Donahoe of Stanford.) The paradox is that China probably has the most prolific social-media activity in the world, but its authoritarian government also fears opposition. So how does Beijing maintain control?

The three American researchers wanted to test the widely held theory that the Chinese government mobilizes an army of more than a million Internet commentators to combat criticism of the regime. This supposed cadre of thought police is often described as “Fifty Cent,” because analysts thought they were paid a small amount for every post that endorsed the party line and rebutted foreign critics.

To test how the system actually worked, the researchers studied a cache of 43,797 Fifty Cent posts that was leaked in 2014 from the Internet Propaganda Office of Zhanggong district in Jiangxi province in southeast China. Nearly all were from people who worked at government agencies (and there was no evidence they were paid anything, let alone 50 cents a post). Their missives spiked sharply on anniversaries of protests and other days when there might be public dissent, making clear they were well-organized.

The surprise was that the posts weren’t argumentative. Instead, they were bland party pabulum. About 80 percent of the posts were “cheerleading” about government activities, 14 percent were non-argumentative praise or suggestions, and almost none were outright attacks. Other Internet samples yielded similar findings.

The Chinese precept, concluded the American researchers, was “do not engage on controversial issues.” Only when there was a danger of collective action would the government intervene directly. It was as if the party propagandists were adapting the famous admonition of Sun Tzu, the revered sixth-century B.C. strategist: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

The researchers offered a concluding thought that’s relevant in this era, when information operations have become a domain of covert action (as demonstrated by the Russian government’s hacking of the 2016 election) as well as domestic control: “Letting an argument die, or changing the subject, usually works much better than picking an argument and getting someone’s back up.”

What happens when we ignore this precept and attack our political adversaries head-on? The 2016 election and its aftermath may be an object lesson. Evidence of wrongdoing may seem overwhelming if it confirms your preexisting beliefs, but not if it challenges those core biases. Graves cited this “backfire effect,” as explained in a 2011 essay by journalist David McRaney: “When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.”

The lesson of this social-science research? If a political narrative is repeated often enough, backed by a chorus of cheerleaders, it’s very hard to rebut directly. Quiet persuasion may be more effective than shouting; the gradual accretion of facts may have more impact than a barrage. To quote Sun Tzu again: “The rule is, not to besiege walled cities if it can possibly be avoided.”

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