The Fifty Cent Party

If you try to access the Internet from within China, you’ll find that it’s a much different experience than virtually anywhere else. Censorship is the norm, and it isn’t subtle — major services such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are blocked, and for a while, Google results were scrubbed to meet the demands of the Communists. On the approved platforms, saying certain things can get you into loads of trouble. Still, there’s a good amount of dissent in the ether, as cyber-citizens find work arounds. But many others toe the party line, saying only positive things about the ruling party, out of fear of repercussions.

Or maybe for the cash the government is giving them.

As the Internet matured, the Chinese government found that censorship was becoming less and less effective. Dissent still happened and, more than ever, these contrary opinions were able to spread widely before the censors could stop it. So in the early- to mid-2000s, the powers-that-be added another approach (in addition to the censors) in efforts to change public opinion. As the BBC explained, the Chinese government began employing “specially trained — and ideologically sound — internet commentators” who were instructed to change the tenor of the conversation by adding pro-government and pro-police comments. These low-level PR agents were called the 50 Cent Party because they were allegedly paid 50 Chinese cents per “positive” post. (That’s about five to ten U.S. cents per post.)

The goal was to turn the tide against the dissenting opinion before the dissent could spread. Per one leaked report, the tactic worked. As the China Digital Times reported:

On the morning of August 10, 2007, because of a traffic dispute, one Internet user in Jiaozuo posted malicious slander about the police in an online forum, and many Netizens forwarded comments without knowing the truth. This had a direct impact on the image and reputation of the police. Ten minutes after the message was released, the internet commentator (Fifty Cent Party) invited by Jiaozuo City Public Security Bureau, discovered and promptly reported it to the public relations department, which immediately organized its network of more than 120 staff to post in the forum calling for the truth and setting the record straight.

It’s hard to say if this is an isolated success or not, but there’s a lot of reason to believe that the 50 Cent Party is rather effective. The big one? While many censorship opponents are understandably skeptical and critics of these efforts, the Chinese government hasn’t abated. In defense of these activities, the government asserted that the 50 Cent Army is an effective way to influence public opinion, and for that matter, a more palatable one and often a more successful one than dictating censorship. Apparently, free speech wins out, even if it costs the Chinese government an American nickel per thought.

But there’s one area where censorship trumps the efforts of these paid efforts — the activities of the Internet commentors themselves. Most searches for the Chinese term for the 50 Cent Party return results which, when clicked, turn out to be inaccessible within China’s borders.

Bonus Fact: The Chinese government isn’t the only institution in the nation getting in on the paid discussion guidance game. There are examples of universities there hiring students to, in the words of the New York Times, introduce “politically correct or innocuous themes for discussion,” such as “a discussion of what celebrities make the best role models, a topic suggested by a professor as appropriate.”

From the ArchivesFebruary 30th: Check out the bonus fact.

Related: “The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online” by Guobin Yang. 4.3 stars on three reviews.