This post is part of a series on Chinese internet censorship and guidance.
Chinese authorities attempt to “guide” public opinion
Chinese authorities, over time, have developed sophisticated methods to censor the internet, from foreign web sites to indigenous social media services like Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like microblog—as covered in a recent Praescient Analytics blog post. These censorship efforts, which prevent Internet users from accessing certain information, are accompanied by Chinese government efforts to guide internet users’ opinions. One method that the Chinese government employs to guide public opinion is a group of paid, government-sponsored internet commentators who attempt to disguise themselves as normal internet users. Such commentators have been nicknamed the “Fifty Cent Party,” (FCP, or wumao dang) after the amount that one such group of commentators was purportedly once paid per post. The phenomenon is similar to what some Western observers have called “astroturfing”—creating what appears to be a grassroots movement that, in fact, is organized by a single entity.
In 2004, the Ministry of Education and Communist Youth League announced to all universities a guideline to recruit internet commentators with trustworthy political backgrounds. In March 2005, Nanjing University hired a team of students to work as web commentators.1 The team, funded with work-study funds, looked over the University’s web fora in search of postings critical of the Party. Over the next few months, other party leaders in Jiangsu Province began establishing their own teams of web commentators.2
Over the next few years, FCP teams proliferated. In a speech in 2008, then-president Hu Jintao gave a full-throated endorsement of the concept of influencing public opinion in new ways, especially by use of the internet. Since that time, numerous internet posts have signaled the expansion of FCP teams. As a result, contemporary estimates of the current number of FCP members range in the hundreds of thousands. One source even suggests that prisoners can reduce the length of their sentences if they serve on FCP teams.3
Effectiveness of the Fifty Cent Party
While FCP members can be effective in their duties,4 many savvy netizens have caught on, accusing those who post pro-government comments as being members of the FCP.5 The posts can be repetitive and banal, so netizens can spot them easily.6 Several forums exhibit netizens accusing other, pro-government netizens of working for the FCP.7
As the number of Chinese netizens continues to increase and the government’s censorship techniques attempt to keep pace with Chinese netizens’ efforts to circumvent them, the more subtle method of guiding such internet users’ views by using FCP teams will probably continue to be a prominent method of controlling public opinion online.
- Bandurski. 2008. China’s Guerrilla War for the Web. Far Eastern Economic Review (July). http://www.feer.com/essays/2008/august/chinas-guerrilla-war-for-the-web.