There is a growing consensus that political propaganda in the age of mass media worked, shaping attitudes and behaviors in favor of governments by suppressing alternative media sources and dominating public attention. What happens to political propaganda in the age of digital media? In the digital context, political actors do not automatically dominate systems of information transmission even when they successfully deploy online censorship. Online censorship can reshape the contours of what information is available on social media, but censorship does not decrease the overall volume of information. The constraints and opportunities provided by modern social media platforms, which are generally built on an ad-revenue model and therefore aim to maximize clicks, are transforming the ways which governments engage in propaganda online. In this paper, we use ethnographic fieldwork to show how producers of propaganda in China face incentives to capture clicks. We then collect and analyze posts made by over 200 Chinese city-government WeChat accounts to show how "clickbait"---the process of providing just enough information in a headline so as to grab the reader’s attention by creating an information gap---features prominently in governments’ propaganda strategies. While governments' use of clickbait is associated with more views, it does not predict more positive assessments of content.
This paper is co-authored with Yingdan Lu, a PhD student in Communication at Stanford.