How China is manipulating Quora

How China is manipulating Quora

I occasionally post to Twitter, Reddit, and Quora. I was happy to see that some of the answers to questions I wrote on Quora have been getting traction. I pride myself on being a pretty good writer, so the more I can spread the word on how to avoid China products to as many people as I can, the better.

But to my surprise, I visited Quora to find that my answer to this question was flagged as spam and deleted.

I did a double-take. I spent over an hour crafting this answer; it was based largely on the research I had done for this page. But to my shock, Quora had removed it. When I visited the question “How can I avoid buying Chinese goods at Amazon”, I saw old answers from 2019 and 2020, but my answer (which contained the most current information and IMO the most helpful) was no longer visible.

I clicked around Quora, and surely enough, a moderator had flagged my article, saying it “violates our policies”.

Now I’m the sort of person that always gives others the benefit of the doubt, so I read through my article a few times. Did I inadvertently offend anyone? Was I overly self-promoting here? But no matter how I sliced it, I couldn’t see what I did wrong.

It’s painfully obvious what happened here. It’s no secret that China’s government, including the People’s Liberation Army, employs thousands of its citizens to essentially be full-time trolls. You’ve probably heard about China’s “wumao army” (“wumao” means “50 cents” in Chinese, which according to some was the amount that these trolls were paid every time time got published, liked or followed). In fact, many of the wumaos who troll Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and Quora are likely the same ones who manipulate Amazon as well.

Here’s how they operate.

Proactively, these armies will publish content that praises the Chinese Communist Party. Look at answers to questions like “What’s happening with the Muslims of Uyghurs in China“. You’ll see answer after answer talking about how the West is being misled and about how wonderful life is in the Xinjiang District, complete with photos of happy Muslims dancing and laughing. And as if by magic, these glorious posts will receive dozens if not hundreds of upvotes, ensuring that they rise to the top of the page.

Reactively, these armies will look for content that is especially threatening to the Chinese Communist Party and attack it. They will use the spam reporting tools that the social media networks provide to their users and flag content that is anything less than effusive towards the CCP as “offensive”. And it can get really personal. If they see individuals who are getting especially effective at communicating anything negative about the CCP, they will coordinate amount other wumao accounts to ridicule, bully, intimidate the individual and in many cases report those accounts as abusive.

Remember that these are “armies”, meaning that they have millions of troll accounts that can “support” any position they take. Social media companies seem like they’re on the losing side of things–they don’t have the manpower to manually moderate every report (the CCP’s troll armies vastly outnumber the number of employees at a company like Quora), and artificial intelligence is nowhere near able to discern a real account from a shill account.

There’s one other important thing to remember. China does not allow the vast majority of its citizens to access Western social media. Only two types of citizens of China visit these sites–1) those who break through the “Great Firewall” at great personal risk (if caught, their “Social Credit System scores” will plummet and they will be pariahs in society) and 2) those who have proven to the Chinese Communist Party not only that they can be trusted not to badmouth the Party, but that they can be trusted to be the eyes, ears, and hands of the Communist Party to help it infiltrate the West.

Sadly, 99% of “real” people visiting Quora (or Twitter, or Amazon) from the free world will not realize how much the online world they’re in is being manipulated. They’ll read posts that rave about how wonderful China and the Chinese Communist Party is, and don’t have time to think about these posts critically. And so drip by drip, they start to internalize the propaganda.

That’s pretty much what probably happened in this case. I had a Quora article that had over 1,300 views (and counting) and some China sellers on Amazon probably started reporting it as spam. Quora doesn’t have the manpower to manually review every single spam report, so it automates a lot of it, their algorithm assuming that if an article gets a certain amount of reports then it must be spam.

I filed an appeal. To Quora’s great credit, within a very short time of my appeal they restored my original answer.

You’d think that would be a happy ending, right? But when I looked closer at my Quora stats, I realized something even more nefarious.

Look closely at these two screenshots. The screenshot to the left is what I see in Quora. The screenshot to the right is what users see.

What I see on Quora
What users see on Quora

As you can see, as a Quora author I think that my answer is showing up #2 (and for a while it was). But Quora users aren’t seeing any trace of my answer. They don’t see it collapsed, or marked as flagged, or anything. They just see that this question has “5 answers” while my interface shows “6 answers”.

This second situation is far more nefarious than the first one, because I received no indication at all that my answer was flagged in any way. Had I not logged out and viewed the page I would never have known that it was being suppressed.

I wrote to Quora, and again to their great credit, they reinstated the answers quickly.

But do you see what’s happening here? Because of the volume of content Quora gets they aren’t able to go and moderate every single question and answer. They’re relying on their automated systems and trusting that “The Community” is living up to Quora’s policies. That’s the only way their algorithms will work. And yes, I was a member of Quora in the early years and the Quora community back then generally adhered to these guidelines, and importantly–policed each other with respect.

So what happened here? Again, similar to how Amazon reviews are manipulated, it’s painfully clear that the wumao army targeted me. They reported my answers as a violation of Quora’s policies. They reported my answers as spam. It’s likely that dozens, if not hundreds, of troll accounts were sent to attack me, downvoting my answers en masse until Quora’s automated systems flagged it as spam and hid my content as “offensive”.

At the same time, the wumaos upvote any answer that supports the Chinese Communist Party. Note how in the screenshot above, my answer was downvoted as spam, but “Paul Mitchell’s” answer (one that sarcastically mocks the person who asked a legitimate question) was upvoted 72 times and counting.

Speaking of “Paul Mitchell”, it’s interesting how this self-described “veterinarian from Australia” has no interest in animal health, but rather goes onto Quora every day and posts or updates at least 5-10 articles about China–every single day for the last few years (he’s up to 8,300 Quora answers since May 2017). Not shockingly, every single one of his posts extol the virtues of the Chinese Communist Party and insults and denigrates the United States. Even stranger, this same “person” has time to go to BoredPanda every day and comment on random posts (none of which have to do with China). Pretty clear that this isn’t a human, but rather a fake account that was set up by a very sophisticated entity. This account that’s taken on a “life” of its own in the online world. Kind of makes you wonder how many of the people you interact with online are actual people (spoiler alert: most of the ones you never met in person aren’t).

The Chilling Effect

Unlike the wumao armies, I don’t do this full time, so I don’t have the time to constantly check whether every single one of my answers got suppressed, much less appeal to Quora. Let’s put it this way. On one side you have a few dozen volunteers like me trying to represent the “anti-CCP” view in whatever time we have outside of our “day jobs” and our family responsibilities. On the other side you have hundreds of literal soldiers (working for the People’s Liberation Army) whose job 24×7 is to find and target any content that is anything less than glowing and sycophantic towards the CCP and destroy it, all while producing their glowing articles talking about the glories of the Party (and upvote each other’s answers).

Remember that no matter how much it seems that China has liberalized, the folks in charge adhere to the tenets of communism. Rule #1 of communism is to control the flow of information. That’s why people in Soviet Russia could only read news from Pravda. The open nature of social media was like a gift to the CCP. Now, instead of relying on rags like The People’s Daily, the CCP can exert its influence on WeChat, Weibo, and every other China-based social media network. Because China controls the Internet within their borders, they can read every word of what every one of its citizens is typing. The government doesn’t need to quash any speech that goes against the CCP, because there are enough brainwashed citizens to stir up their own online mobs to shame non-compliance.

What’s chilling is how this has spread to American-run social media. Every now and then you’ll hear how Twitter or Facebook or Amazon blocked thousands of accounts run by China. But remember that China has a population of 1.4 billion people and a government so powerful that for every account that is caught, they can turn up many more. They can manipulate millions of their citizens into a hive mentality of venerating the Party and protecting it at all costs.

Sadly, Quora seems unable to prevent its site from devolving into a full-fledged propaganda wing of the Chinese Communist Party.

If you’re on Quora and would like to help, please feel free to visit my profile and follow me and/or upvote some of the answers you see that you like. And do the same for every independent Quora contributor who is trying to be helpful. Downvote answers that are obvious shills for the Chinese Communist Party (which usually have tons of upvotes and are written in a sarcastic, belittling way or in a condescending “no, no, you have been brainwashed by the media” way). Honestly, I’m not sure if that’ll help at all. Most of us are just individuals, and we can’t fight against a literal army. But every little bit counts.

Better yet, I hope that you can share the link to this Web site, https://notochina.org/ to those who are interested. China may have co-opted Quora, Wikipedia, Twitter, and Facebook, but they haven’t co-opted the World Wide Web…yet.

11 Comments

  1. Your article still doesn’t explain how they manipulated Quora. Let’s assume that wumaos do exist. Then it is not proven that the Quora users are wumaos.

    1. Uh…okay. You’re right.

      All Quora users worldwide are all honest people who cherish the First Amendment and are classical liberals who respectfully state their own opinions and welcome opposing opinions so that together, truths can be determined by honest and transparent debates on the battlefield of ideas.

      There is absolutely no manipulation on the part of the Chinese Communist Party to use outlets like Quora to try to manipulate public opinion as they would any other propaganda outlet. And there is no evidence whatsoever, neither direct nor circumstantial, that Quora and Twitter mobs are being formed to silence, ridicule, and call into question anyone who disagrees with whatever viewpoint they espouse.

      Boy is my face red.

  2. Thank you for this and for your work. And of course what looks like a wumao commenting on your sight proves that they exist ….

  3. Chinese American (Los Angeles, CA area) here. I find Quora refreshing compared to the anti-Chinese propaganda I daily .

  4. Glad to see someone else recognises this. It means that the Western intelligence agencies will already be onto it, too.

    I noticed exactly the same things on my own Quora and other social media accounts: anything anti CCP is downvoted/reported as spam, and many of the commenters who are (apparently) Westerners, actually have thousands of answers parroting CCP propaganda.

    Keep up the good work.

    1. The irony is that US politicians–and by extension the US intelligence agencies that report in to them–have gotten so politically correct that it seems they spend day and night chasing after “white supremacists”. If I recall correctly, the president called them the single biggest threat to the United States.

      Speaking as a minority myself, I find this statement ridiculous–with all due respect. Not only is it clear that there are much bigger threats to our country…it’s clear that it’s the Chinese Communist Party–with their 100 years of experiences of propagandizing, their well-funded armies of trolls on every social media platform, AND their complete control over social media outlets like TikTok–is one of the main forces in inventing and fomenting division so that all eyes are focused on imaginary bogeymen instead of themselves. They use our freedoms against us and I hate to say it, but it seems that most politicians aren’t just blind to it–they have become useful tools in amplifying the division.

  5. I would also ask you to look out for the newest tactic on Quora. That is to like your anti-CCP posts with fake accounts that have pictures of very naked and very suggestive women. Their names will be normal female names, but when you click on these fake accounts, each one will contain the same message:

    Age, location, two smiley faces, and the statement “if you want sex please click my website”. The website will be the name of the person, preceded by the word “hot”, with a dot-com suffix, for example “hotjennifer.com”.

    Quite clearly these are phishing sites intended to hack into your laptop/smartphone and do whatever nefarious thing it is that the Chinese Wumao are supposed to be doing.

    Really there is no end to the CCP’s need for controlling narratives, committing crimes against free people, and seeking to undermine democratic societies.

  6. Update: all the pornographic likes on Quora have disappeared. This means two things:

    1. We were right.
    2. They are watching this website intently.

    My advice: post nothing online in future that gives away our knowledge. Post only things you are happy for the CCP to know.

    Bletchley Park 2.0.

    You should also make work to secure your website against hackers.

    1. Any site you feel violates our values, please report it to MI5, MI6, the FBI or the CIA. There are online portals for reporting international and intranational issues like this.

      WSNS.

  7. I 100% agree. I checked Quora’s Instagram back when I was suspicious of similar stuff happening to my posts. Whenever I write a counter argument on chinese propaganda on quora my post would be deleted or I am not able to post it. If no one counters propaganda they would seem very believable and it either confuses people and they stop supporting the cause or they become pro china after feeling like they were lied to. Most of the propagandas have a kernel of truth behind it but they completely ignore the context or enlarge the issue 10x or make up stories with a truth for example “Sam went to the bathroom” becomes “Sam went to the bathroom to plan with evil capitalists to destroy ordinary families and steal their livelihoods.” They justify their evil actions by using these kinds of propaganda. The communists are very well versed in it. Marx and Engels themselves encouraged using propaganda to take power.

    So, what I found on Quora’s Instagram page was quiet shocking, they had multiple pics with members of the ccp and individuals from mainland china, thanking them. Then I realized how deep ccps propaganda machine has infiltrated our internet. From wikipedia to twitter and beyond, even many scientific journals I would say. Their peer reviews are between their professors and professors that are paid in renminbi. I am specially mad that quora and wikipedia where teens and adults go to seek answers or information have been deeply soaked in chinese propaganda. Sometimes it feels like we need a complete overhaul of the internet but realistically speaking we need to bring in new sites and apps where regulations are observed from the start and make it harder for foreign adversaries to infiltrate. This should stop propagandas and spammers from spreading.

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