(PHOTO: Marcus Bleasdale VII)
Show Hide image

China’s Paid Trolls: Meet the 50-Cent Party

The Chinese government hires people to distort or deflect conversations on the web. Ai Weiwei persuades an “online commentator” to tell all.

In February 2011, Ai Weiwei tweeted that he would like to conduct an interview with an “online commentator”. Commentators are hired by the Chinese government or the Communist Party of China to post comments favourable towards party policies and to shape public opinion on internet message boards and forums. The commentators are known as the 50-Cent Party, as they are said to be paid 50 cents for every post that steers a discussion away from anti-party content or that advances the Communist Party line.

Below is the transcript of Ai’s interview with an online commentator. As requested, an iPad was given as compensation for the interview. To protect the interviewee, relevant personal information has been concealed in this script.

Question: What’s your name, age, city of residence and online username?

Answer: I cannot make my name public. I’m 26. I have too many usernames. If I want to use one, I just register it. I won’t mention them here.

What do you call the work you do now?

It doesn’t matter what you call it: online commentator, public opinion guide, or even “the 50-Cent Party” that everyone’s heard of.

What is your level of education and work experience? How did you begin the work of guiding public opinion?

I graduated from university and studied media. I once worked for a TV channel, then in online media. I’ve always been in the news media industry, for four or five years now.Over a year ago, a friend asked me if I wanted to be an online commentator, to earn some extra money. I said I’d give it a try. Later, I discovered it was very easy.

When and from where will you receive directives for work?

Almost every morning 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. Sometimes it specifies the website to comment on, but most of the time it’s not limited to certain websites: you just find relevant news and comment on it.

Can you describe your work in detail?

The process has three steps – receive task, search for topic, post comments to guide public opinion. Receiving a task mainly involves ensuring you open your email box every day. Usually after an event has happened, or even before the news has come out, we’ll receive an email telling us what the event is, then instructions on which direction to guide the netizens’ thoughts, to blur their focus, or to fan their enthusiasm for certain ideas. After we’ve found the relevant articles or news on a website, according to the overall direction given by our superiors we start to write articles, post or reply to comments. This 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. In sum, you want to create illusions to attract the attention and comments of netizens.

In a forum, there are three roles for you to play: the leader, the follower, the onlooker or unsuspecting member of the public. The leader is the relatively authoritative speaker, who usually appears after a controversy and speaks with powerful evidence. The public usually finds such users very convincing. There are two opposing groups of followers. The role they play is to continuously debate, argue, or even swear on the forum. This will attract attention from observers. At the end of the argument, the leader appears, brings out some powerful evidence, makes public opinion align with him and the objective is achieved. The third type is the onlookers, the netizens. They are our true target “clients”. We influence the third group mainly through role-playing between the other two kinds of identity. You could say we’re like directors, influencing the audience through our own writing, directing and acting. Sometimes I feel like I have a split personality.

Regarding the three roles that you play, is that a common tactic? Or are there other ways?

There are too many ways. It’s kind of psychological. Netizens nowadays are more thoughtful than before. We have many ways. You can make a bad thing sound even worse, make an elaborate account, and make people think it’s nonsense when they see it. In fact, it’s like two negatives make a positive. When it’s reached a certain degree of mediocrity, they’ll think it might not be all that bad.

What is the guiding principle of your work?

The principle is to understand the guiding thought of superiors, the direction of public opinion desired, then to start your own work.

Can you reveal the content of a “task” email?

For example, “Don’t spread rumours, don’t believe in rumours”, or “Influence public understanding of X event”, “Promote the correct direction of public opinion on XXXX”, “Explain and clarify XX event; avoid the appearance of untrue or illegal remarks”, “For the detrimental social effect created by the recent XX event, focus on guiding the thoughts of netizens in the correct direction of XXXX”.

What are the categories of information that you usually receive?

They are mainly local events. They cover over 60 to 70 per cent of local instructions – for example, people who are filing complaints or petitioning.

For countrywide events, such as the Jasmine Revolution [the pro-democracy protests that took place across the country in 2011], do you get involved?

For popular online events like the Jasmine Revolution, we have never received a related task. I also thought it was quite strange. Perhaps we aren’t senior enough.

Can you tell us the content of the commentary you usually write?

The netizens are used to seeing unskilled comments that simply say the government is great or so and so is a traitor. They know what is behind it at a glance. The principle I observe is: don’t directly praise the government or criticise negative news. Moreover, the tone of speech, identity and stance of speech must look as if it’s an unsuspecting member of public; only then can it resonate with netizens. To sum up, you want to guide netizens obliquely and let them change their focus without realising it.

Can you go off the topic?

Of course you can go off the topic. When transferring the attention of netizens and

blurring the public focus, going off the topic is very effective. For example, during the census, everyone will be talking about its truthfulness or necessity; then I’ll post jokes that appeared in the census. Or, in other instances, I would publish adverts to take up space on political news reports.

Can you tell us a specific, typical process of “guiding public opinion”?

For example, each time the oil price is about to go up, we’ll receive a notification to “stabilise the emotions of netizens and divert public attention”. The next day, when news of the rise comes out, netizens will definitely be condemning the state, CNPC and Sinopec. At this point, I 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 . . .”

This sounds like I’m inviting attacks but 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. This will attract more attention. After many people have seen it, they start to attack me directly. Slowly, the content of the whole page has also changed from oil price to what I’ve said. It is very effective.

What’s your area of work? Which websites do you comment on? Which netizens do you target?

There’s no limit on which websites I visit. I mainly deal with local websites, or work on Tencent. There are too many commentators on Sohu, Sina, etc. As far as I know, these websites have dedicated internal departments for commenting.

Can you tell which online comments are by online commentators?

Because I do this, I can tell at a glance that about 10 to 20 per cent out of the tens of thousands of comments posted on a forum are made by online commentators.

Will you debate with other people online? What sorts of conflicts do you have? How do you control and disperse emotion?

Most of the time we’re debating with ourselves. I usually never debate with netizens and I’ll never say I’ve been angered by a netizen or an event. You could say that usually when I’m working, I stay rational.

When the government says, “Don’t believe in rumours, don’t spread rumours,” it achieves the opposite effect. For example, when Sars and the melamine in milk case broke out, people tended to choose not to trust the government when faced with the choices of “Don’t trust rumours” and “Don’t trust the government”.

I think this country and government have got into a rather embarrassing situation. No matter what happens – for example, if a person commits a crime, or there’s a traffic accident – as long as it’s a bad event and it’s publicised online, there will be people who condemn the government. I think this is very strange.

This is inevitable, because the government encompasses all. When all honour is attributed to you, all mistakes are also attributed to you. Apart from targeted events, are individuals targeted? Would there be this kind of directive?

There should be. I think for the Dalai Lama, there must be guidance throughout the country. All people in China hate the Dalai Lama and Falun Gong somewhat. According to my understanding, the government has truly gone a bit over the top. Before I got involved in this circle, I didn’t know anything. So I believe that wherever public opinion has been controlled relatively well, there will always have been commentators involved.

How do your superiors inspect and assess your work?

The superiors will arrange dedicated auditors who do random checks according to the links we provide. Auditors usually don’t assess, because they always make work requirements very clear. We just have to do as they say and there won’t be any mistakes.

How is your compensation decided?

It’s calculated on a monthly basis, according to quantity and quality. It’s basically calculated at 50 yuan per 100 comments. When there’s an unexpected event, the compensation might be higher. If you work together to guide public opinion on a hot topic and several dozen people are posting, the compensation for those days counts for more. Basically, the compensation is very low. I work part-time. On average, the monthly pay is about 500-600 yuan. There are people who work full-time on this. It’s possible they could earn thousands of yuan a month.

Do you like your work?

I wouldn’t say I like it or hate it. It’s just a bit more to do each day. A bit more pocket money each month, that’s all.

What’s the biggest difficulty in the work?

Perhaps it’s that you have to guess the psychology of netizens. You have to learn a lot of writing skills. You have to know how to imitate another person’s writing style. You need to understand how to gain the trust of the public and influence their thoughts.

Why can’t you reveal your identity? Why do you think it’s sensitive?

Do you want me to lose my job? Whatever form or name we use to post on any forums or blogs is absolutely confidential. We can’t reveal our identity, and I definitely wouldn’t reveal that I’m a professional online commentator.

If we do, what would be the purpose of our existence? Exposure would affect not just me, it would create an even greater negative effect on our “superiors”.

What do you mean by “superiors”?

Our superior leaders – above that should be the propaganda department.

Is your identity known to your family? Your friends?

No. I haven’t revealed it to my family or friends. If people knew I was doing this, it might have a negative effect on my reputation.

You say: “If I reveal inside information, without exaggeration this could lead to fatality.” Do you think that the consequence would be so serious?

With my identity, I’m involved in the media and also the internet. If I really reveal my identity or let something slip, it could have an incalculable effect on me.

If you say you want to quit, will there be resistance? Are there any strings attached?

Not at all. This industry is already very transparent. For me, it’s just a part-time job. It’s like any other job. It’s not as dark as you think.

How many hours do you go online each day and on which sites? Do you rest at the weekend?

I go online for six to eight hours nearly every day. I’m mainly active on our local BBS and some large mainstream internet media and microblogs. I don’t work over weekends, but I’ll sign in to my email account and see if there’s any important instruction.

In daily life, will you still be thinking about your online work?

Now and then. For example, when I see a piece of news, I’ll think about which direction the superiors will request it to be guided in and how I would go about it. It’s a bit of an occupational hazard.

Do you watch CCTV News and read the People’s Daily?

I usually follow all the news, particularly the local news. But I generally don’t watch CCTV News, because it’s too much about harmony.

Do you go on Twitter? Who do you follow?

Yes. I follow a few interesting people, including Ai Weiwei. But I don’t speak on Twitter, just read and learn.

How big a role do you think this industry plays in guiding public opinion in China?

Truthfully speaking, I think the role is quite big. The majority of netizens in China are actually very stupid. Sometimes, if you don’t guide them, they really will believe in rumours.

Because their information is limited to begin with. So, with limited information, it’s very difficult for them to express a political view.

I think they can be incited very easily. I can control them very easily. Depending on how I want them to be, I use a little bit of thought and that’s enough. It’s very easy. So I think the effect should be quite significant.

Do you think the government has the right to guide public opinion?

Personally, I think absolutely not. But in China, the government absolutely must interfere and guide public opinion. The majority of Chinese netizens are incited too easily, don’t think for themselves and are deceived and incited too easily by false news.

Do you have to believe in the viewpoints you express? Are you concerned about politics and the future?

I don’t have to believe in them. Sometimes you know well that what you say is false or untrue. But you still have to say it, because it’s your job. I’m not too concerned about Chinese politics. There’s nothing to be concerned about in Chinese politics.

 

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Ai Weiwei guest-edit

RICHARD SAKER/REX
Show Hide image

Electric dreams

How the “hippie tycoon” Dale Vince – a pioneer of renewable energy – plans to turn football and our motorways green.

In the hills above the tiny Cotswolds town of Nailsworth, on a road named Another Way, is an unusual football stadium. As you enter the New Lawn ground, the first thing you see is a pair of Nissan Leaf electric cars plugged into charging stations; on the reception counter are flyers for the Vegan Society. This is the world’s only meat-and-dairy-free football club, where players and fans enjoy Quorn fajitas, veggie burgers, cheeseless pizza and tea with soya milk.

Look out from the main terrace at the Forest Green Rovers club and you’ll see more curious sights. An array of 170 solar panels is positioned atop the south stand. Behind a corner flag is a large tank for storing water that has been recycled from beneath the organic pitch, which is fertilised with seaweed. Even the advertising banners stand out: the most prominent bears the white skull-and-crossbones logo of Sea Shepherd, the marine conservation charity.

It might all seem quaint and worthy, the vanity project of a hippie tycoon. But Forest Green Rovers are a serious club. The team of full-time professionals sits in the playoff places near the top of the National League, the fifth tier of English football. If they keep that up, they stand a good chance of winning promotion to League Two, for the first time in the club’s 127-year history. But the longer-term goal is to make it all the way to the Championship, just a step from the
Premier League.

That is why Forest Green Rovers are moving ahead with plans for an extraordinary new stadium near Stroud, in Gloucestershire. Designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, the firm that built the London Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympics, it will seat 5,000 people, with a capacity to expand to twice that. And it will be constructed almost entirely of wood. “That’s never been done before, anywhere,” said Dale Vince, who rescued the club from near bankruptcy in 2010 and is now its chairman. “It will be the greenest stadium in the world.”

We met in early November at the Stroud headquarters of Ecotricity, the renewable energy firm he founded in 1995, which runs 19 windfarms and two solar parks. Vince, who is 55, is not your typical corporate boss. He was wearing brown boots, ripped jeans and a black T-shirt. His hair is shaved on the sides, with a small ponytail on top, and his sideburns are long. A silver ring hangs from the tragus of his left ear.

Vince’s office is scantily furnished with two beanbags, a standing desk, a small, round table in the middle and a large, green Union Jack on the wall. If you didn’t read the newspapers, which drew attention to his wealth last summer while covering a legal battle with his ex-wife, you would have no idea he was worth more than £100m.

It is a fortune that has allowed him to spread his green dreams into areas beyond football. Before the 2015 general election, Vince gave £250,000 to Labour, £50,000 to the Liberal Democrats and £20,000 to the campaign of the Green MP, Caroline Lucas. But he may yet make the biggest difference with transport. Ecotricity has built what it calls the Electric Highway, a network of 296 charging points at motorway service stations which has made it possible to drive from Land’s End to John o’Groats in an electric car. Vince says he is trying to accelerate the demise of the internal combustion engine. “Our government is not the most ambitious on green issues but by 2030 it wants all new cars to be electric or hybrids. We think it could happen sooner.”

 

 

***

 

Vince grew up in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, in a two-bedroomed ­bungalow. His father was a self-employed lorry driver who worked hard yet worried about being able to pay the bills. “That’s why I decided to drop out and live like a hippie,” Vince wrote in the Daily Telegraph in 2009. “I didn’t want a career or a mortgage.”

He left his local grammar school at 15 and four years later became a New Age traveller: his first home was an old ambulance. He toured Britain and Europe, and along the way he got married, painted, learned to bake bread – and had run-ins with the police. He was part of the Peace Convoy, a confederation of anti-authoritarian travellers, and in summer 1985 he took part in the “Battle of the Beanfield”, when police trying to prevent a free festival at Stonehenge clashed with protesters. Some travellers were beaten and vehicles were smashed.

Vince, a tinkerer, built a small windmill on top of his van to power the lights. In the early 1990s, while living on a hill in Gloucestershire in a former army truck, he had an epiphany: what if he could harness the wind on a much bigger scale and change the energy industry? He decided to “drop back in” to society to set up Ecotricity, which claims to be the world’s first green energy firm. The model was simple: the company would produce as much renewable electricity as it could, buy in any extra fossil-fuelled power it needed, and use customer revenues to construct more windfarms until the operation was fully green.

“I built my first windmill in ’96, after a five-year battle with all-comers – Nimbys, bigots, planners, big power companies, you name it – and went to Kyoto in ’97,” Vince wrote on his blog, Zero Carbonista. “The rest is just more history.”

That windmill is still turning: its blades can be seen from the top of a stand at the New Lawn. And like the football club, which has doubled its home attendance in six years, Ecotricity is thriving. It has nearly 200,000 customers. Accounts filed at Companies House show turnover for the year ending April 2016 of £126m, up from £109m; pre-tax profit was £6.7m. Vince is the sole shareholder but the company does not pay dividends and he draws a salary of less than £150,000. The converted 18th-century fort where he lives with his second wife and their son is worth more than £2m, but he says he is not motivated by money.

Despite Ecotricity’s success, the firm faces several challenges, including the implications of Brexit, which Vince opposed. “We have not left [the EU] yet, but the pound has slumped and banks are thinking of leaving,” he said. “The process of leaving will be tortuous, and the idea that we can trade better outside the EU – that’s nonsense.”

A more immediate problem for Ecotricity is regulatory. The last Labour government introduced attractive incentives for companies and homeowners to produce renewable energy, especially wind and solar power. These subsidies amounted to billions of pounds – since 2002 Ecotricity has received £36m towards building windmills costing over £100m – and have helped make Britain a world leader in green power. In 2011, 9 per cent of Britain’s electricity came from wind, sun and other renewable sources; in 2015 the figure was 25 per cent.

But since the Conservatives won a majority under David Cameron in 2015, breaking free from the restraints of their coalition partners, the eco-friendly Lib Dems, the government has made it harder for green projects to secure planning permission. It has also reduced financial support for the industry. In December 2015, days after helping seal the Paris climate-change accord, which called on all countries to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, the government announced a series of cuts to subsidies for renewables, which are paid for through business and household energy bills.

“They [the Tories] have smashed renewable energy with a sledgehammer,” Vince said. “And they’ve done it in a deceitful way, saying it was for the good of the industry. They’ve practically shut down solar and onshore wind in the UK. Bringing forward new stuff now – I don’t see it happening.”

At the same time, the government is promoting fracking, a controversial process that involves blasting water and chemicals into rocks to release trapped gas. Fracking has been suspended or banned in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland and Wales because of environmental concerns. Official surveys show that fewer than one in five Britons supports fracking, yet in October the government overruled councillors in Lancashire and approved plans to explore for shale gas there. “[Fracking] is a big risk to take for a gas that we cannot afford to burn if Britain is to hit its carbon-reduction targets,” Vince said.

His proposed alternative is to produce “green” gas from grass grown on marginal farmland. Ecotricity will build its first grass-to-gas mill in Hampshire next year, and Vince says that in theory the green fuel could be used to heat almost all homes in Britain within two decades. His vision is unlikely to get much support from Theresa May, who, after taking office in July, abolished the Department of Energy and Climate Change and transferred its functions to an enlarged department responsible for business. “It’s ideological when it comes to green stuff,” Vince said. “The left embraces it and the right does not.”

That is why, in February 2015, he donated funds to Labour, the first time he had done so. What does he think now, with Labour trailing so far behind the Tories in the polls? “Jeremy [Corbyn] is a lovely man. He believes that he can lead the party to a general election victory. But if I were him I might be inclined to stand aside. The party seems so riven, and that is a real problem. The Tories are having a free-for-all.”

He believes that Tony Blair has a role to play in restoring the fortunes of the left. “I am against Trident and nuclear energy, and for social justice. But I’m also a practical person. What Tony Blair did with Iraq was disgraceful. But there was more that was right. I think Blair did a fantastic job, and rumours of his return excite me.”

Ask Vince what he would do if he were Energy Secretary and he reels off a list: ban fracking; rip up the Hinkley Point C nuclear power contract; spend “a billion dollars” on promoting energy efficiency; tax polluting power companies; perhaps renationalise the energy industry, from producers to suppliers. He would also give green vehicles a big stimulus, as has happened in Norway with marked results. Thanks to tax breaks and incentives – exemption from VAT and public parking fees, freedom to use bus lanes – plug-in cars now account for over a quarter of new car sales in Norway. “It’s economic signals that change behaviour,” Vince says.

 

***

 

As a boy, Vince was astonished at how many cars there were on the road. Surely the fuel they were burning couldn’t last for ever, he remembers thinking. But the oil companies kept discovering reserves, so there was no incentive for manufacturers to develop green cars. In 2008, when there were fewer than 2,000 electric vehicles on the road across 40 of the world’s most developed countries – and barely any at all in the UK – Vince and his engineers decided to take the initiative.

“I’m a bit of a petrolhead and also a tree-hugger, which is a dilemma. I could not get an electric car at that time, so we bought the shell of a Lotus Exige on eBay and turned it into a supercar,” he told me.

The Nemesis, as it was called, broke the British land speed record for an electric car in 2012, clocking 151.6 miles per hour. By then, however, Vince had realised that building cars was a different proposition from generating energy. Instead, he had started rolling out the infrastructure that he hoped would hasten the take-up of electric vehicles.

“We wanted to break the chicken-and-egg scenario,” he said. Few people owned electric cars, so there were barely any motorway charging points in Britain, which in turn discouraged people from buying the vehicles. Ecotricity started with a three-pin-plug point at a service station in 2011. It took eight hours to charge a Nissan Leaf, a small, five-door family hatchback that at the time had a 73-mile range. “We knew it was not good enough, but that a massive increase in technological capacity was coming.”

Today, a Nissan Leaf, the world’s bestselling electric vehicle, can drive for 80 miles on a half-hour power-up at a service station, which isn’t a full charge. Most new electric cars can run for between 100 and 150 miles before they need to be plugged in. “Range anxiety”, which has been a deterrent for many potential buyers, is fading away. “In a few years’ time you’ll be able to drive 400 miles on a 15-minute charge,” Vince said.

The Electric Highway has encountered some bumps along the way. Early on, Ecotricity entered into an agreement with Tesla, the Californian electric car company run by the technology billionaire Elon Musk (who also plans to colonise Mars). But in 2014 Ecotricity claimed that Tesla had gone behind its back, negotiating with service stations with a view to installing its own chargers. Ecotricity sued Tesla, which then countersued; the companies reached an out-of-court settlement in June 2015. (Vince was involved in another settlement a few months later. His former wife, whom he divorced in 1992 when they had no assets, had claimed nearly £2m of his fortune, and was awarded £300,000.)

As with his early embrace of wind power, Vince’s bet on the Electric Highway looks a smart one. According to the International Energy Agency, there were 1.26 million either fully electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles on the road at the end of 2015, more than three times as many as in 2013. The IEA forecasts that by 2040 there will be 150 million plug-in cars in service. With petrol consumption accounting for nearly 20 per cent of all oil consumed, that has huge implications for the petroleum industry – and the planet’s climate. In November, Shell announced that overall demand for oil could hit its peak in as little as five years.

Ecotricity had allowed drivers free use of its motorway plug-in stations since 2011, but in July it introduced tariffs for the first time. A half-hour charge now costs £6. The move angered some motorists; but Vince, who says the Electric Highway should cover its costs this year, is unapologetic. “We don’t have to make money in everything we do,” he said, referring to the football club and the car-charging network – but however altruistic his motives might be, he is also a businessman.

Green cars remain relatively expensive in the UK – the cheapest model in the Nissan Leaf range costs more than £20,000. But prices are falling and choice is growing, with more than 40 electric or hybrid models on sale in the country.

“The stumbling block was the range of the cars and the cost. What’s happening is one is going up and the other is going down,” Vince said. “The technology is on the cusp of mass appeal. You will see the government jump in before long and claim credit for that.”

As for Vince, he doesn’t even own a car. On a beanbag at the office in Stroud are the helmet and jacket he uses when riding in to work on his KTM motorcycle. And yes, it’s electric.

Xan Rice is the features editor of the New Statesman

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain