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China: The thought police return

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While most of us enjoy the freedom of the internet, there is an underground operation threatening free thought in China. Stylist investigates the online troops paid to influence your opinion

Words: Sophie Elmhirst

We all have an opinion. We all know what we fundamentally do and don’t like. And, now, due to the huge, ungovernable network that is the internet, we all have the opportunity to share it. And it’s not just our views on the Eurozone recession or violence in Egypt. No, indeed, we can also proffer up our thoughts on such heavyweight topics as who will win Celebrity MasterChef and Jennifer Aniston’s new film. And we choose to do just that; on news websites, forums and social media sites on a daily basis.

Because long gone are the days of a single broadsheet newspaper read in stately silence over breakfast tea, marmalade and toast – our news and opinions now come from a plethora of sources, and those sources come with feedback, opinion and comments. Hundreds of them. You can’t help but get sucked into the debates from an outraged reader in Slough or a left-wing militant in Cumbria. They can be vicious, digressive and hilarious, but every now and then there’ll be an eloquent comment that makes you pause, think and even change your mind; an impassioned plea from a single mum to support the government’s policy on childcare; a primary school teacher championing school reforms. So far, so valid.

Now, imagine both those people are actually one government employee tapping away at their home computer, cup of tea on the side, actively seeking out comment threads that criticise policy in a bid to steer public opinion round to the authorities’ preferred view. It may sound far-fetched, but it is precisely what is happening in China every single day.

In an effort to control the opinions posted on the web, Chinese authorities have introduced a covert band of comment thread hijackers, nicknamed the ‘50-Cent Party’. Nothing to do with the American rapper; the 50-centers are essentially an army of paid propagandists, across all ages and genders, who monitor internet users and wade into online debates to steer the conversation back to a pro-government view. They were christened as such because they are said to be paid 50 cents of Renminbi (about 5p) for every post that manipulates an online conversation.

The method was first used in 2005 on university campuses – school officials, pressured into toeing the party line, hired students to work part-time to steer their peers away from any radical thought – but it then quickly spread across China. While it is very difficult to establish exactly how many 50-centers there are in the country, some estimates put it as high as 300,000 people.

Mind control

Last summer, I visited Beijing to work with the dissident artist Ai Weiwei on his guest-edit for an edition of the New Statesman. And it was through this connection I began to understand how the Chinese government persuades its people.

Since 1949, China has been controlled by the Communist party and though over the last 30 years the country has opened up considerably to foreign trade and tourists, the party still exerts considerable control over its citizens, particularly their consumption of media. Before the arrival of the internet (the first email in China was sent in 1987), the Chinese government found it relatively easy to control all the main outlets – newspapers, TV, radio and magazines were all sternly monitored by party officials. But as the internet multiplied the platforms to govern, while making them interactive, total control, so beloved by the party, was no longer an option. So, instead of simply blocking everything they disagree with – an impossibility – they decided to intervene in comment threads.

In an attempt to understand the workings of this secretive online army, Ai Weiwei interviewed a 50-center. The commentator wouldn’t reveal his real name, or any of the multiple online identities he adopts (he said the potential damage his exposure could do was “incalculable”). But he did illuminate the intricate workings of his job: “Everyday at 9am I receive an email from my superiors – the internet publicity office of the local government – telling me about the news we’re to comment on for the day,” instructing him in exactly which direction to guide the netizens’ thoughts. The skill of the job, he explains, is in adopting multiple personalities on the same thread – he will pretend to be either “the leader”, or “the follower”. As the leader, he will try and dominate the conversation, while the follower will simply distract users away from the main story by disrupting the conversation or moving it off-topic. “I feel like I have a split personality,” he said.

It’s not always easy work, though, as Isabel Hilton editor of bilingual website chinadialogue.net explains, while the 50-centers “fool some people, China’s web users are now pretty sharp when it comes to sniffing out the party line”. Well-known Chinese blogger Wen Yunchao recently disclosed that internet users can spot the propagandists a mile off: “We pretend we don’t hear or see them,” he said. “We never give any reaction.” So the commentators have to be even more manipulative to disguise their identity. And not too obvious: “The principle I observe,” revealed the 50-center, “is don’t directly praise the government.”

When I asked Ai Weiwei recently about the phenomenon, he sent me a document that has been circulating on the internet in China, entitled ‘The internet commentators’ working directory’. It outlines the key duties and methods of a 50-center. They are encouraged to manipulate in a variety of ways – creating “sensational false news” to distract users from their current line of thought, before revealing it is just rumour, and befriending netizens in private to win their trust, before persuading them out of their views in online forums.

As an example, the 50-center described what he’d do if oil prices went up and citizens were blaming the state: “I’d register an ID and post a comment: ‘Rise, rise however you want, I don’t care. Best if it rises to 50 yuan per litre: it serves you right if you’re too poor to drive. Only those with money should be allowed to drive on the roads…’ The aim is to anger netizens and divert the anger and attention on oil prices to me. I would then change my identity several times and start to condemn myself… Slowly, the content of the page then changes from oil price to what I’ve said. It is very effective.”

Steering opinion

But 50-centers aren’t the only way the Chinese authorities try to control the web. ‘The Golden Shield Project’, initiated in 2000, is a huge surveillance operation which monitors internet activity. Home-grown social media networks have been developed – China’s equivalent of Twitter, Weibo, now has over 500 million users – but the government keeps them on a tight leash – deleting messages and posts that aren’t approved. Plus, potentially disruptive international websites such as Facebook are blocked.

“Because the internet is a network, [the government] has to come up with new ways to try and control ideas or ‘guide public opinion,’” explains Hilton. And they’ve had to do it fast with China’s web consumption now reaching 590 million.

Such meddling from invisible authorities and anonymous commentators seems remote to us here in Britain. Our internet – we assume – is free and fair and uncorrupted. But is it? Graham Jones, a psychologist specialising in the internet, explains: “The phenomenon of sponsored comments is nothing new. Studies have shown that around one in three comments and reviews on websites are essentially false because they are sponsored in some way. Indeed, there are people who advertise their services to write comments and reviews. China does it on a state basis, but it does operate elsewhere.”

This, it would seem, is the main difference. While our government might take a greater interest in our online activity, they don’t, as far as we know, pay commentators to influence online discussion. But political parties do something similar, as Daniel Trilling, author of Bloody Nasty People: The Rise Of Britain’s Far Right, explains: “When I was reporting on the BNP in the run-up to the 2010 election, they had a whole team of activists whose job was to go and leave comments under pieces critical of the party. You could tell it was a co-ordinated effort, because within about 10 minutes of a piece going online there would be a string of comments praising the BNP.”

Thankfully, such efforts, whether political or commercial, rarely work. Major websites such as Google and Amazon are cracking down on false comments and using detection mechanisms to recognise algorithms in people’s writing. “On top of all this,” Jones says, “research shows that people only look at the first one or two comments to ‘get a flavour’ of things.” And, as you would expect from normal people with an iota of balance, if the comments are entirely positive or negative, we tend not to trust them. So when BNP activists flood a comment thread, they actually achieve the opposite of what they intended.

Still, we can count ourselves lucky that state internet manipulation is not part of our daily lives. But China’s methods might be catching on in other parts of the world. According to The Economist’s China correspondent, Gady Epstein, China is now selling its know-how abroad to the likes of Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Ethiopia and Zambia in a desire to “increase online access while retaining tight political and technological control.”

The good news is that these systems can be circumnavigated. Many young Beijingers showed me how easily they could access Twitter and Facebook through the use of ‘virtual personal networks’. The authorities might move fast, but the people move faster – and as long as the internet remains the wild mass of opinion that it is, it will be almost impossible for even the craftiest of political regimes to control it.

Sophie Elmhirst is acting culture editor for the New Statesman

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