If you are internet savvy, you might be familiar with the word “troll” or “trolling,” or you might have come across the term while browsing through the comments section on social media platforms. Just to make sure you are aware of what we mean by “trolling,” here we are not referring to that ugly giant found in folklore stories. Definitely not.
“Troll” is actually an internet slang referring to a person who purposely tries to create discord or distract others by posting off-topic comments online. Most of the “trolls” around the world “trolled” others just for their own amusement. But has it ever occurred to you that there might be a group of people who get paid to “troll” on the internet?
Yes, there is a country that employs about 2 million people to be trolls on the internet. The purpose? All for the government’s benefit.
Social Media Trolls in China
The 50-Cent Brigade, also known as the 50-Cent army, is a common term in China, where a group of online commentators are employed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and are said to be paid 50 renminbi cents (US$.07) for every pro-China post.
According to media reports, the CCP hires about 500,000 to 2 million commentators, and they are often the “busiest” during important days such as China’s National Day, VOA News reported. “On an anniversary, everyone is on the edge of their seats,” David Bandurski, editor of the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project, said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s an anniversary of the Cultural Revolution or Communist Party or National Day—it’s always a nervous moment. That’s the point of control.”
But what exactly do these commentators write about?
To find out more, Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei interviewed a commentator in 2011, News State Man reported.
In the interview, the commentator, a then-26-year-old who graduated from university and majored in media studies, told Ai that he was first introduced to the job by a friend. However, compared to what most people know, these Chinese commentators do not earn 50 cents per post; rather, they earn “50 yuan per 100 comments.”
Though the compensation was low, he was willing to “give it a try” to earn some extra allowances, and he soon found it to be a “very easy” job.
The commentator explained that they would often receive instructions via email after an incident had happened and sometimes before the news was reported on how they should “guide the netizens’ thoughts, to blur their focus, or to fan their enthusiasm for certain ideas.”
However, the commentator shared it was not easy as it “requires a lot of skill.”
“You can’t write in a very official manner, you must conceal your identity, write articles in many different styles, sometimes even have a dialogue with yourself, argue, debate,” he explained. “In sum, you want to create illusions to attract the attention and comments of netizens.”
The commentator shared the job is akin to being a “director” where one had to influence the readers with their “writing, directing and acting,” making him like he sometimes has a “split personality.”
What do These Internet Trolls Write About?
As mentioned earlier, a troll tries to create distraction and sometimes go off topic, and this is exactly what the commentators of the 50-Cent army do.“When transferring the attention of netizens and blurring the public focus, going off the topic is very effective,” said the commentator to Ai, adding that some of the methods to go off topic include posting jokes or publishing adverts.
To help Ai understand more effectively on how guiding public opinion is done, the commentator used the increase in oil prices as an illustration. He went into specifics explaining that he would register an ID and write a comment, “Rise, rise however you want, I don’t care. Best if it rises to 50 yuan per liter: it serves you right if you’re too poor to drive. Only those with money should be allowed to drive on the roads…”
This helps shift the netizens’ focus from the oil prices and instead direct their anger on him. To make it more realistic, he would even “condemn” his own comment by using another registered ID.
Alluding to this tactic, he said, “It is very effective.” The commentator also shared with Ai that certain individuals or groups are also targeted by the CCP.
“All people in China hate the Dalai Lama and Falun Gong somewhat,” he said. “According to my understanding, the government has truly gone a bit over the top.”
He added that after becoming a commentator, he realized “that wherever public opinion has been controlled relatively well, there will always have been commentators involved.”
Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a mind-body cultivation practice based on the principles of Truthfulness, Compassion, and Forbearance. The spiritual discipline includes five gentle, slow-moving exercises. However, the CCP began a brutal persecution on the practice in July 1999 shortly after a state-run survey estimated that there were at least 70 million people practicing the exercises in the country.
To instill hatred towards the practice, the CCP staged a self-immolation incident three years after the persecution started. In January 2001, the Chinese state media reported that five Falun Gong practitioners had set themselves on fire in the center of the Tiananmen Square.
The report soon came under scrutiny, with international media and journalists suggesting that the self-immolation was staged due to discrepancies in the accounts of events, such as the number of self-immolators increasing from five to seven a week after the incident. Moreover, Philip Pan from The Washington Post investigated the identities of two self-immolators and found proof that they were not Falun Gong practitioners.
While the sole responsibility of the commentator whom Ai interviewed was to guide the netizens in China, there are others who also bypass the Great Firewall of China to attack foreigners.
One notable example was when Tsai Ing-wen was elected in 2016 as President of the Republic of China, also known as Taiwan, her Facebook page was flooded with pro-China comments from more than 40,000 people.
According to Foreign Policy, the motivation to flood Tsai’s Facebook page originated from a campaign on a forum on Baidu, China’s largest search engine, calling for Chinese web users to “show the patriotism of the Chinese youth.”
“These are volunteer armies of mobilized angry youth,” Bandurski told VOA. “They are happy to heed the call to, say, spam the Taiwan president.”
“To what extend they are state-organized, we don’t know,” he added. “Is it volunteering? State-encouraged volunteering? It’s so complicated. They are like ‘The 50 Cent’ 2.0.”