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, 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.

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