Sunday, March 3, 2024

How China’s ’50 Cent Army’ Could Wreck Web 2.0

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Two years ago, Chinese President Hu Jintao called on Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members 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 Hu’s speech, Communist Party officials and the State Council issued an official call 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 CCP has hired thousands of freelance Internet propagandists whose job is to infiltrate chat rooms, message boards and comment areas on the Internet posing as ordinary users to voice support for the agenda and interest of the CCP. They praise China’s one-party system and condemn anyone who criticizes China’s policy on Tibet. They comment aggressively on news reports about China’s food-safety problems, relations with Taiwan, suppression of bird-flu and AIDS information, Internet censorship, jailing of dissidents, support of Sudan’s military in Darfur and other sensitive topics. Comments applaud the Chinese government and slam its critics, all using scripts and lines approved by the party.

The BBC calls these freelance propagandists China’s 50 Cent Party. The Guardian newspaper calls it the 50 Cent Army. (50 Cent isn’t a rapper in this case, but a reference to the pay: 50 Chinese “cents” per post, which is equivalent to about 7 US cents). Other names include “red vests” and the “red vanguard.”

Some estimates claim that the 50 Cent Army includes a whopping 300,000 people. If that’s accurate, China’s freelance propagandists exceed in number the total populations of 47 countries.

Why This Isn’t “Astroturfing”

Of course, the Chinese didn’t invent the idea. In the US, for example, political campaigns, companies and other organizations have been known to use paid staff or volunteers to post messages en masse to create a false impression that the public supports or opposes something. A genuine bubble of opinion is called a “grass roots” movement. So faking that is called “astroturfing.”

The difference between China’s 50 Cent Army and astroturfing is fourfold. First, is scale. A typical astroturfing campaign might involve a few or maybe a dozen people at most. Or, in the case of a mass mailing, it could involve thousands of people who voice or submit their opinions only once or twice. China’s approach involves thousands of times more people.

The second difference is duration. China’s 50 Cent Army works every day, all year, year after year. Astroturfing efforts, on the other hand, are one-off projects designed to achieve specific, limited goals. The reason is that a free press and the machinations of multi-party democracy quickly expose astroturfing projects and turn public opinion against their agendas. Because the Chinese government is accountable to neither the public nor the press, it can sustain Internet mass-propaganda efforts indefinitely.

Third, China’s 50 Cent Army, when used abroad, hits people who aren’t expecting it. When a political group in the US fakes a grass roots movement, it does so in an environment where people are skeptical and have their guards up. But most people in the West have no idea that China is constantly swaying public opinion on the Internet, and tend to accept what they see at face value.

And finally, China’s degree of organization far exceeds any known effort elsewhere. The government’s Culture Ministry reportedly trains and even certificates Web propagandists. It’s run like a professional organization.

How This Affects You and Me

Criticism of the Chinese government abroad is often countered by the argument that China’s political system is an “internal matter” — something that’s none of the business of outsiders. But China’s 50 Cent Army is everybody’s business.

With 300,000 people, you can see how the CCP could easily determine what makes it onto the front page of Digg, and what gets shouted down. They could use Wikipedia, YouTube and Slashdot as their most powerful tools of global propaganda. It would be trivial for China to determine Yahoo’s “Most Popular” news items (“Most E-Mailed,” “Most Viewed” and “Most Recommended”).

Over the long term, the existence of China’s 50 Cent Army erodes the value of the Web 2.0, which is based entirely on the actions of users. If half those users are working for the CCP, then the results of user actions are compromised. Nobody can trust it.

It’s also yet another threat to Internet anonymity, which is already under pressure from legislators and some organizations who believe that anonymous posts create opportunities for fraud, deception and the exploitation of children. The more China’s 50 Cent Army succeeds, the more support will fall behind the idea of fixing the problem by illegalizing anonymity.

Ultimately, China’s 50 Cent Army threatens free speech. And although new threats to free speech are constantly being invented – the 50 Cent Army being one of the most recent innovations – the defense of free speech is always the same: More free speech.

So be on the lookout for the CCP’s paid posters, and oppose them at every opportunity.

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