China Beefs Up '50 Cent’ Army of Paid Internet Propagandists

An icon of internet police in China to remind netizens to avoid unlawful behavior online. Photo from flickr user Harald Groven. CC BY-SA.

An icon of Internet police in China to remind netizens to avoid unlawful behavior online. Photo from Flickr user Harald Groven. CC BY-SA.

For over a decade, the Chinese government and Communist Party have been hiring Internet commentators to publish favorable comments about them online in an effort to manipulate public opinion. But the irregular nature of the work of the so-called 50 Cent Party, a nickname for hired commenters that refers to the average pay per comment, has made it difficult for the party to gain an upper hand in online discussion.

Judging from the major hot topics on Chinese social media over the past few years, such as the China Red Cross scandal (2011-2013), the Wenzhou Train Crash Incident (2011), and Hawker Xia Junfeng's self-defense court case (2009-2013), public opinion leaders known as “Big Vs” (owners of verified accounts) and commercially hired commentators known as the Online Navy have been more potent in influencing the narrative.

But now, China is stepping up its game.

In the latest phase of ideological struggle, both the Big Vs and the Online Navy have become targets of censorship and crackdown. Judiciary guidelines issued in early September even criminalize commercial post-deletion services, labeling it as a form of blackmail.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government is building a more professional 50 Cent Party as well as a more controllable commercial Online Navy sector by giving online commentators a professional status through its licensing system. In September 2013, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security endorsed “Internet opinion analyst” as an official occupation status and registered the profession at the China Employment Training Technical Instruction Center, an institution “responsible for providing technical guidance to the employment and vocational training work nationally and organizing occupational skill testing all over the country.” This official recognition means that government authorities can now open new “Internet opinion analyst” positions under their regular budgets rather than squeezing the budget or applying extra budget to hire freelance commentators.

The news has been met with anger from Chinese netizens who are unhappy that their tax money will now officially go toward employing people who will censor and monitor them. He Qinglian, a prominent online commentator, explained to Voice of America (via International Business Times):

These jobs are funded with taxes, but the work goes against the taxpayer. The difference between this and other industries in society is that its purpose is to strengthen political control. The specialty of this industry is that it consumes social wealth, but doesn't create any value.

163.com interviewed [zh] an expert from an institution specializing in Internet opinion analysis who said the current market salary of a junior Internet opinion analyst is about 6,000 to 8,000 yuan, which is equivalent to about 1,000 to 1,200 US dollars.

According to Beijing Morning Post, there are about two million people engaged in work such as collecting, managing and analyzing online public opinion for decision-makers in the propaganda department, as well as for the portal websites in the commercial sectors. In order to obtain a professional license, they have to take eight courses, including public opinion analysis, critique, crisis management and responses.

The Internet opinion analysts also use surveillance software to monitor the opinions surrounding a number of keywords for their clients. There are different price levels of software, ranging from 50,000 to three million yuan (9,000 to 500,000 US dollars), as well as levels of functionality – some monitoring software can even crawl data from overseas websites and analyze the results. For opinion analysts working for the government and the Communist Party, they can also delete posts assisted by the surveillance software.

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