China’s Web Spin Doctors Spread Beijing’s Message

The Sydney Morning Herald has an article on the so-called Fifty Cent Party, or Internet commentators who are paid to post comments in forums and microblogs in support of government policies:

With nearly half a billion people surfing the net in China, more than half of them using microblogs, the Internet has quickly become a vital forum for debate in the world’s most populous country — and a major sounding board.

That fact has obviously registered with the country’s Communist leaders, who pay careful attention to the conversations that unfold online despite the heavy government restrictions on what can and cannot be discussed in cyberspace.

Enter the “web commentators” who, either anonymously or using pseudonyms, spread politically correct arguments — many of them for money. Who are these high-tech propaganda wizards, infiltrating blogs, news sites and chat rooms?

“It is very mysterious… these people don’t talk to the media! Everyone is just guessing,” Jeremy Goldkorn, editor of the China media website Danwei.org, told AFP.

Imprisoned artist and activist Ai Weiwei conducted a lengthy interview by phone and email with a Fifty Cent Party member, which provides some insight into the work performed. China Media Project translates:

Question: How do you describe yourself the work you’re now doing?

Answer: My basic job is working for Internet media, but I don’t do journalism per se. Mostly I handle entertainment events, and from time to time I’ll go out and conduct interviews and things like that. Because I spend a lot of time on the Internet, I can do this online commentary work (网评的工作) as a part-time gig. Whatever you want to call it is fine — Internet commentator (网络评论员), public opinion channeler (舆论导向员), or even the “50-cent Party” (五毛党) everyone is so familiar with.

Question: What sort of conditions and qualifications are required of public opinion channelers?

Answer: I’m not sure what qualifications and such are required for other Internet commentators. When I started doing this, it was all just through the help and connections of this friend. All I did was provide proof of identity, and there weren’t any special or rigorous qualifications or conditions. Personally, I think to do this you need a definite degree of competency with language, because you have to write constantly.

Question: Did you go through any special work training? And if so, what specifically did it involve?

Answer: No, my friend just introduced the basics of the work process.

Question: What are the standards or criteria that govern the work?

Answer: I’m not sure how to answer that. Actually, there are no standards. If there are, I would have to say it’s understanding clearly what the guiding ideology of your superiors is (上级的指导思想). You first get a clear sense of what the public opinion orientation is up top, then you start your own work.

Read much more about the Fifty Cent Party via CDT.