For almost a decade, China has been using an army of sockpuppets known as the 50 Cent Party to control public opinion on the internet. Now, their ranks have swollen to around two million. They are the men and women who are paid by the government to sway public opinion by commenting on various message boards, blogs, and social media. Recently, the Chinese government has begun treating this as an official occupation. As other nations such as the US consider similar strategies, free and meaningful communication on the internet could become doomed to the past.
The BBC first broke the news of the 50 Cent Party with the December 2008 article “China’s internet spin doctors,” uncovering how China’s Communist Party uses paid internet commentators in a sophisticated program to influence public opinion. They have been dubbed the 50 Cent Party in various media because the commentators are known to receive the Renminbi equivalent of fifty American cents for every time they make a post which steers discussion away from anti-party sentiment or advances the party line. The Beijing Morning Post reports that about two million are currently in this line of work. Large Chinese websites have their own teams of commentators, as do municipalities, provinces, and a variety of government offices. They pay is not necessarily 50 cents per post; they are normally paid salaries.
The Ministry of Education first began to hire these commentators for the bulletin board systems of various universities in 2005. The idea diffused to schools and local governments. In a couple of years, the idea reached the top: in 2007 Chinese leader Hu Jintao announced that groups of internet commentators will be formed to advance party ideologies. Using internet sockpuppets to manipulate public opinion became a matter of official policy.
The 50 Cent Party is growing more sophisticated still. In September 2013, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security began to recognize “internet opinion analyst” as an official job, so the term can now legitimately appear in department budgets. To get a professional license to become an internet opinion analyst, one must first graduate from an eight-course training program–a vocational school for propagandists. “Internet opinion analyst” is a shrewd euphemism for what many internet users call “trolls.” The worst thing is that it’s the taxpayers who pay for this service.
Odder still, some of these internet opinion analysts are behind bars. To fill the demand for trolls, the government has turned to private contractors and even offers reduced sentences to prisoners for writing pro-government comments. Imagine being faced with the choice: produce propaganda for the state, or more time in the clink.
The China Digital Times has leaked a document that outlines the directives of the so-called 50 Cent Party. They are ordered to play down the existence of Taiwan and direct criticism towards the US; to point to examples in Western countries to illustrate how democracy is ill-suited for capitalism; accuse America and its allies of forcing others to adopt Western values; underscore positive developments and the government’s ability to maintain social stability; and to draw upon past instances of bloodshed from the history of modern China to drum up patriotic support. Tensions are high with China and her neighbors, especially Japan and Taiwan.
China is engaged in several territorial disputes, most recently with Japan and Taiwan over islands in the East China Sea, where it has recently expanded its airspace defense zone. The US has pledged to support Japan, flying unarmed B-52 bombers over the uninhabited islands, which are called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. The US does not have a position on the sovereignty of the islands. Vice President Joe Biden is going on a trip to visit China, Japan, and South Korea. Internet opinion analysts must be busier than ever these days.
Techniques similar to sockpuppetry have been around for a long time in the US and other countries. The term “astroturfing” has been applied to efforts to hide the true sponsor of a message, creating artificial grassroots support–hence the name astroturfing. By using an anonymous account, a sockpuppet account, or by paying off shills, one can control public perception to his or her advantage. For example, in 1993 the National Smokers Alliance was created by tobacco companies to lobby in favor of smoker’s rights.
Sockpuppet accounts have been used by authors to write favorable reviews of their own books. Stuffing ballot boxes, using fake accounts to buttress one’s own ideas, making anonymous complaints about rivals, paying bloggers for reviews–these are all deceptive techniques that fall under this wider umbrella. Wikipedia is a warzone of puppet account allegations. Reddit has to deal with the problem of “voting brigades.”
China may be rolling out fields of Red Astroturf today, but a sockpuppet army on an even grander scale is being developed by the US. Persona management software will allow for the automatic generation of multiple puppet user accounts, each of them acting like a living member of the online community, so convincingly that you can’t tell them apart from a genuine human user. The United States Air Force gave the contract to develop this zombie technology to Ntrepid Corporation. The proliferation of these fake online identities could have applications for social control and the spread of propaganda. The US military insists that it will not be used domestically, but will be used to counter extremists in other countries.
The use of persona management software for astroturfing is a likely realty, turning the internet into a wasteland of zombie accounts (although introducing zombies at this point seems to stray from the sockpuppet metaphor.) Internet activists may one day misappropriate persona management software, fighting zombie armies with more zombie armies, leading to recursive troll-versus-troll pandemonium.
The best thing to do if the sockpuppet armies come marching is the best thing we could’ve been doing all along: whenever reading something, assume that the person who penned it could be the person who would benefit most from its dissemination. The strength of the idea is in the idea itself–layers of bias must be filtered as noise. The internet has already survived the onslaught of spam, after all.
Media savviness is more important now than ever before, even without these futuristic technologies of mass deception. Our modern age of information and communication is too complex for the evening news and the morning paper to digest and sort out for us. We’ve turned away from the warm, cosy hearth of unidirectional information. The internet is cold and frightening, anonymous and infinite.
Whether in China, the US, or elsewhere, sockpuppets can be avoided by unplugging from the internet. The best way to get real opinions hasn’t changed: go to the cafe or pub or market and ask people.
Op-Ed by K. Elsner