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China’s 50 Cent Party: The Other Side of Censorship

Russia has its famed “troll factories” – shadowy organizations quietly supported by the Kremlin to flood Internet comment sections with vitriolic anti-U.S. posts intended to provoke the worst sorts of responses.

Iran may boast of its “halal Internet,” a giant nationwide web only for those inside Iran supposedly being built to keep out “unclean” or anti-Islamic content, as well as critical comments about the government.

But when it comes to altering or censoring the web, the worldwide leader by far is China. For decades, Beijing has celebrated what it calls the Golden Shield, what the rest of the world has come to know as the “Great Firewall of China.”

But the Great Firewall is only one-half of China’s efforts to alter what’s seen online by its citizens. For years, it’s been rumored the government has been paying an army of volunteers to post bogus comments and posts on Chinese websites.

It even has a name: the “50 Cent Party”, so-named for the approximate fee volunteers get for fake posts. Now, a new study conducted by researchers at Harvard University not only confirms the existence of the 50 Cent Party, but reveals it’s much larger than anyone previously imagined.

FILE - A man surfs Internet on his laptop computer at a Starbucks cafe in Beijing, Feb. 16, 2015.
FILE - A man surfs Internet on his laptop computer at a Starbucks cafe in Beijing, Feb. 16, 2015.

Changing the subject

“What everybody thought they were writing about, all these 50 Cent Party people, was all wrong,” says professor Gary King, Director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University and study co-author.

“The theory was that the 50 Cent Party people would just argue with you if you said something bad about the government. It turns out that's completely wrong,” King said. “They don't argue with anybody. What they do is distract. Their posts are about cheer-leading for the government.”

King and his colleagues spent several years analyzing the patterns of millions of posts on Chinese websites, cross-referencing comments, user IDs and other factors. The report concluded that over 440 million social media posts every year can be traced back to the 50 Cent Party; often in predictable ways.

“The posts don't appear just randomly all the time,” King told VOA. “What happens is they appear in bursts and directed for specific purposes. And when they use it, they marshal them at particular times in a very big, very sophisticated operation with military-like precision.”

Moreover, King says the posts have a singular purpose: namely, short-circuiting any discussion that might lead to protests or unrest, and diverting attention to something else.

“Think of the last time you had a real good argument,” King said. “About the single worst way to end it is coming up with the best possible counter argument. A much better way is to say ‘Hey, let's go get ice cream’ or ‘Look at big shiny thing out the window.’

“Just change the subject; that's the logic the Chinese government follows. They say, ‘Hey, let's change the subject.’ And big bursts of activity, at very specific times, they change the subject.”

“A lost generation”

“Of course I really hate these 50 Cent Party members,” says Chinese journalist and activist Su Yutong, now living in Germany. “But what I really hate is the ones that hire them – the Chinese government and the Ministry of Propaganda.”

Su had long heard rumors of such activity, and came face-to-face with it while working with student volunteers at a Beijing-based NGO.

“We found out one of them was using the volunteer position to gather information of our projects,” she told VOA. “So I had a long chat with him, and he was very moved and disclosed some secrets to me,” of his 50 Cent Party activities.

“He told me that he was paid by the Chinese government to do this; he was paid 800 yuan per month, so that’s quite a handsome sum for some students, especially those that are from impoverished areas and families," she said. “If they refuse to do this, they may not be able to graduate from college. If they were very active, posting bogus posts on the Internet, they may even gain credit points from their professors.”

Su cites the recent election of Tsai Ing-Wen as President of Taiwan as an example of how Beijing can unleash the 50 Cent Party for propaganda purposes.

“The Chinese government allowed a large number of 50 Cent Party members – around 10,000 – to go online to post on social media (comments) bad mouthing and vilifying Tsai and democracy. Usually the Chinese government has this Great Firewall, and it’s hard for people to go on the Internet uncensored. But they let these 50 Cent Party members go through to post comments attacking her.”

The flood of critical comments did not go unnoticed in Taiwan. In response, Tsai Ing-Wen simply posted “Welcome to the free world.”

Su worries that the millions of 50 Cent Party members forced into concocting phony posts is creating what she calls “a lost generation.”

“It’s very worrying, such a large number of young people who work as 50 Cent Party members. They’re confused and lost about basic values. This is really bad as a whole for Chinese society, because they obviously know what they’re doing is wrong, and they’re learning how to lie,” Su said.

Harvard’s Gary King says the activities of the 50 Cent Party suggests a great deal about what the current regime sees as its greatest threat.

“They only care about talk of protest or some collective action, because that's the thing that could create instability as they call it or potentially get them thrown out of power,” King said.

“So that's why they use these 50 Cent Party posts to distract from any kind of collective action activity. Any kind of crowd formation. Anybody that has the ability to move crowds outside the government – that’s who they're concerned about.”

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.