Chinese President, Hu Jintao, two years ago asked members of the Chinese Communist Party to ‘assert supremacy over online public opinion, raise the level and study the art of online guidance and actively use new technologies to increase the strength of positive propaganda.”
After his speech, officials of the Communist Party and the state council called for ‘comrades of good ideological and political character, high capability and familiarity with the Internet to form teams of Web commentators who can employ methods and language Web users can accept to actively guide online public opinion.”
The Chinese Communist Party has since hired thousands of freelance online allies whose primary job is to enter chat rooms, comment areas and message boards and double as normal users to voice their support for the interest and agenda of the CCP. They sing high praise of China’s draconian system and rebuke anyone who criticizes it.
They comment incessantly on news reports about China’s food-safety issues, suppression of AIDs and bird-flu information, censorship online, and relations with Taiwan. Comments support the CCP and rebuke its critics, all using lines and scripts that have been previously approved by the government.
The BBC has referred to these freelance allies as China’s ’50 Cent Party’. Other newspaper outlets refer to them as the ’50 Cent Army’. This is in reference to the fact that how much money they earn per post. There are other names they are called as well, including ‘red vanguard’ and ‘red vests’.
There are some estimates that claim the 50 Cent Army comprises more than 300,000 individuals. If this is anywhere near accurate, then it’s a force to be reckoned with.
This Isn’t Astroturfing
Interestingly, the Chinese didn’t come up with this idea. In America, for example, there are companies, organisations and certain political campaigns that have been known to pay people or recruit volunteers who post messages on a grand scale to create a false impression that the wider public is in support, or doesn’t support, an idea. A genuine movement is called ‘grass roots’, so the opposite of it is called ‘astroturfing’.
So, what’s the difference between astroturfing, and China’s 50 Cent Army? Well, the first is the size. With typical astroturfing ventures, the most people you’re going to find affiliated with it is a dozen. Or, if you’re talking about mass mailing, this could involve thousands of individuals who submit an opinion only once or twice. With China, the numbers are thousands more than this.
The second difference is the duration. The 50 Cent Army is online every day, all day, year after year after year. With astroturfing, you’re talking about one-off projects that are only designed to achieve a limited goal over a certain period of time. This is because free press is part of a multi-party democracy, which makes it really easy to expose people who are being part of an astroturf movement. Because the Chinese government is account neither to the public or the press, they can sustain this type of movement for as long as they need to.
Thirdly, the 50 Cent Army when used overseas, takes people by surprised. When a political group in America fakes a movement that is supposed to emulate ‘grass roots’, it does so in an environment where people already have their guard up. However, there are lots of people out there beyond China that have no idea that China is attempting to sway their opinion online, and a lot of the time these days, people tend to accept what they see and read online at face value.
Lastly, China has a degree of organization that far outweighs anything else out there. The government’s Culture Ministry is reportedly hard at work training these individuals, and certifying them for the job. It is operated like a professional organization.
How This Affects You
So, any criticism of the Chinese government beyond its shores is met with the concept that it’s an internal matter. That is, it’s none of anyone’s business. However, when you’ve got members of the 50 Cent Army swaying people’s opinions overseas, it is everyone’s business.
With an army that is 300,000 strong, it is easy to see how certain propaganda could make it to the frontpage of certain news sites. They can use platforms like YouTube and Wikipedia to get their agenda across. On a long-term scale, China’s 50 Cent Army reduces the credibility of the internet, which is based completely on the actions of its users. If half of those are working for the Chinese government, then user actions have been compromised, and nobody can trust it.
It is a serious threat to internet anonymity, which is already feeling the pressure from organisations and legislator who believe that anonymous posts are gateways for deception, fraud, and exploiting society’s most vulnerable, like children. If the 50 Cent Army is successful, then there will be more support for the concept of fixing the issue by making anonymity illegal.
The bottom line is that China’s 50 Cent Army threatens free speech. Of course, threats to free speech are always being pioneered at any given time, the defence is the opposite – more free speech. So, be on the lookout for CCP’s paid individuals, and fight them in the comments section as much as you can.