Earlier this week on Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok reports on a fascinating piece of research into how the Chinese government pays people to post to social media sites to build support for the government. The paper is by Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts.
A key insight: the effort is not to debate issues, but to distract people. Says the paper:
Distraction is a clever and useful strategy in information control in that an argument in almost any human discussion is rarely an effective way to put an end to an opposing argument. Letting an argument die, or changing the subject, usually works much better than picking an argument and getting someone’s back up…
Debate is about appealing to an individual’s reason; debate is thus implicitly individualistic, respectful of rights and epistemically egalitarian. (As I argued earlier, respect for the truth is tied to individualism because any person may have truth and reason on their side.) Authoritarians don’t care about these things and so they lie and distract with impunity and without shame. In this case, the distraction is done subtly.
In these times, we need to be sure to debate issues. And we need to be sure to avoid being distracted.