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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

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The great escape

Almost a thousand people drowned in the waters between Libya and Italy in May. Yet still more migrants come. Can anything be done, or are we experiencing a crisis without end?

On 14 June 1985, representatives of five out of the ten members of the then European Economic Community (EEC) – Belgium, France, West Germany, the Netherlands and Luxembourg – gathered on the Princess Marie-Astrid, a boat moored on the banks of the Moselle River in Luxembourg. Their pens were poised over a pact that aimed to dissolve the internal borders of Europe. The agreement was named after the nearby ­riverside town: Schengen.

There were only five signatories because the other EEC members – including Britain – were dragging their feet. But the bureaucrats had only to glance at the vineyards outside to remember why they were here. To the east of the river lay Germany; a short distance upstream was France. Belgium was only a bike ride away and the Netherlands a cursory drive. The people who lived in this corner of Europe criss-crossed national borders all the time. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if they didn’t have to be scrutinised as if they were spies when they were only nipping over the river to buy a sausage or deliver a letter?

It was also an evocative place in another way. This terrain of hills and forests was haunted by centuries of bloodshed. It was where France, Germany and Britain had fought many of their wars: Waterloo was an hour or so to the west by car; Verdun was even closer; the Battle of the Bulge had raged just north of here in 1944 and early 1945. The Schengen Agreement was an attempt to lay such awful ghosts to rest. From now on, people would not have to show passports but could simply “drive slowly” across the frontiers.

David Cameron has received much flak for reminding voters of this detail but it would be shallow to ignore it. The agreement had a significant effect not just on daily life but on tourism, trade and commerce. In the 1990s, many of the old and new members of the European Union signed up and the expansion continued in the 2000s with the joining of non-members such as Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. Today, the Schengen Area is made up of 26 European countries. All the while, Britain and Ireland, anxious behind their sea walls, shook their heads.

Schengen was an optimistic idea and anyone who has worked or holidayed in ­Europe since 1985 has felt the ease that it has brought to the crossing of borders. But as it celebrates its coming of age, 21 years since its inception, Schengen is in the dock. Those who designed it to liberate movement in Europe did not imagine international migration on today’s scale. Partly as a result of the speed of modern travel and communications, more than 240 million people now live outside the country of their birth. This is one of the most important facts of modern life and, because Europe is among the nicest places in the world to live, it is forcing politicians and electorates to ask awkward questions about the way they conduct themselves.

Migration makes people twitchy, for understandable reasons. It would be a mistake to think of the present commotion as a topical issue that can easily be fixed. Last year, a million people fled Africa and the Middle East for Europe. This month, as footballers gather in France and the Mediterranean warms up, it is happening all over again.

Almost every week there is news of a fresh disaster. The EU deal with Turkey – in which the country will be paid €3bn in aid and granted other concessions in return for policing and processing its three million refugees more rigorously – has calmed traffic in the Aegean. Yet the people smugglers have shifted their attention back to the perilous sea crossing between Libya and Italy. Almost a thousand people drowned there in the last week of May, bringing the total to 2,500 so far this year, and there are aquatic graveyards for 4,000 Syrians who have died in Greek waters in recent years.

We cannot be sanguine about the prospect of the English Channel becoming the stage for similar scenes as the summer advances. It could hardly be on the same scale as what is happening in the Mediterranean, but there are already sporadic attempts to make the crossing and there will almost certainly be more. This is no passing cloud. It may even be a permanent shift in the wind.

***

uman beings have always migrated, moving from place to place in search of kinder skies, better food or nicer neighbours. Mobile phones and the internet have made it much easier for migrants to communicate and gather information. Nonetheless, today’s Mediterranean exodus involves people walking from Syria to Sweden – far from a hi-tech manoeuvre. Some politicians want to depict the migrants as trespassing, heavily armed intruders but most people can see that they are both ordinary and desperate: brothers-in-alms.

This may be one of those historic population shifts that mark the story of Europe. One thinks of the swirl of German and Scandinavian peoples in the first millennium – the Franks, Angles, Saxons, Goths and Norsemen who created early Christendom; the flight from Europe between 1850 and 1910, when people emigrated to the New World at a rate of almost a million a year; or those who were displaced after the Second World War. Is it possible that today’s turbulence is the first sign of something along those lines? The EU border force, Frontex, estimates that there were 1.8 million illegal border crossings in 2015, six times as many as in 2014, and the true figure is probably higher. It is no wonder that no one knows what to do.

Until now, this migration has been viewed as a response to urgent pressures such as war, poverty, religious violence and famine. Yet what it most resembles is an ­alteration in the prevailing weather: people are swirling between areas of wealth and poverty, just as air is squeezed between high- and low-pressure zones. The disparities between Europe, Africa and the Middle East are profound. This is not about foreign chancers wanting to try their luck in Swindon. It is demographic climate change.

It may be beyond the ability of governments to resist this. They don’t like to admit it but they find controlling the movement of peoples as hard as nailing down their currencies. David Cameron vowed to reduce the number of immigrants to the “tens of thousands” in 2010 but he hasn’t come close. While his enemies enjoy depicting this as a broken promise, it is a sign that politicians have only so much power.

There are other reasons to be fearful. Quarrels over water will shape the next century just as oil shaped the last one. In 1950 there were 500 large dams in the world; now, there are more than 45,000. On any map of future water shortages, the warning signs flash over North Africa and the Middle East – and when the wells dry up, people will move.

The nations involved in today’s ­exodus are relatively small. The populations of Afghanistan, Eritrea and Syria together amount to 60 million. If war or disaster were ever to engulf larger countries such as Egypt or Pakistan, Europe would have an even bigger headache. These two nations have a combined population of 264 million.

Fortunately, there is some good news. Hard though it is to believe in the current atmosphere, migration is a force for good. The noisy claim that it presents a threat to our crumbling infrastructure and cultural blood pressure may sound like common sense but it is a myth. Migrants do not drive down wages, steal jobs, overwhelm social services and displace “true-born” Brits. The opposite is true: in the long run, at least, they expand the economy and promote innovation.

Study after study confirms this simple point. Periods of high migration correlate with economic growth – which is no surprise, given that migration allocates people to places where they can be most productive. This is why the UN estimates that 1 per cent of migration translates into a boost in GDP of 1.5 per cent. And this is why J K Galbraith wrote:

Migration is the oldest action against poverty. It selects those who most want help. It is good for the country to which they go; it helps break the equilibrium of poverty in the country from which they come. What is the perversity in the human soul that causes people to resist so obvious a good?

This is not to say that there are not bottlenecks. There are. But although it seems to be an ingrained human assumption to believe that more for you means less for me, the fear that migrants overwhelm services and create social deprivation has a flimsy basis. The Merseyside borough of Knowsley is the second most deprived area in Britain, yet one of the least affected by immigration. Governments should do more to relieve deprivation but this could involve building hospitals or schools, rather than electrifying borders or watching people drown.

The second item of good news is that even the most alarming statistics in this area are soft-centred. Anti-immigrant campaigners enjoy gasping at the idea that some 300,000 people, roughly the population of Plymouth or Newcastle, are arriving in the UK each year; they imply that these people are swelling the queues for health care, housing and schools. But more than half this number (167,000 in 2015) is composed of students, who pay high fees to attend British institutions; tertiary education is an important export. And migration today is no longer a once-in-a-lifetime decision but a fluid and intricate process. Migrants drift this way in search of jobs; some stay, while others drift out again. Many even go home for the weekend, or the summer.

It is almost impossible in the present maelstrom to think of migration as a boon. Loud voices insist that migrants are a nuisance, a burden and a threat. It almost defies logic to see them as an energetic itinerant workforce of ordinary people. But the larger truth is that it hardly matters what we think. The question now is not whether or not we wish migration was happening, but how to make the best of the reality that it is.

***

he migrant crisis has commercial implications. This summer’s holidaymakers are likely to shun Greece and Turkey in favour of Spain, which is looking forward to a record-breaking year.

The most striking consequence, however, is the surge of nationalist politics across Europe, from Golden Dawn in Greece and the Freedom Party of Austria to the UK Independence Party. The nationalist wrecking ball is swinging.

In Britain’s case, this has taken the form of an assault on the European project, which, though not racist, encourages the expression of some ancient prejudices. As the day of the referendum approaches, the leaders of the Brexit campaign are playing what we might call the Donald Trump card by attacking immigration. The weightier cultural issues are drowned out in the urge to warn Daddy that there are strangers coming up the drive.

This urge is strong and, in the EU debate, creates odd bedfellows – George Galloway and David Owen on one side; Jeremy Corbyn and George Osborne on the other. It also persuades men such as Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith to abandon their lifelong sympathy for the pro-business argument and pose as soulmates of the working man. But the biggest irony is of a different order. It would be perverse if the reflex hostility to migration leads us to take to our little coracle just when the real storm is beginning.

This brings us back to the fragility of Europe’s supposedly porous borders. In truth, they have never been set in stone. Various time-lapse videos on the internet (such as the one on viralforest.com) race through a millennium in mere minutes. The Holy Roman Empire spreads from Sicily to Germany and Muslims press into Spain. The ­Mongols advance and recede; central Europe explodes into a galaxy of tiny princedoms and France’s eastern border wriggles like an angry snake. The Ottoman, ­Austro-Hungarian, German and Soviet empires bulge and fall back. Nations come and go in a flash.

It is a salutary reminder that the nation states of Europe have long been elastic and that if the nation state is not yet dead – declarations of its demise are premature – it can at least be said that nations and states are not the same thing. When people yell that we have “lost control” of our borders, they are imagining a past that never was: in the great rough and tumble of Victorian England not a soul was turned away. Britain has been secure on its island but Europe has never been a fortress. If we instal the apparatus of a police state at our ports and harbours – watchtowers, searchlights, paramilitary officials – we may be able to deter some paperless hotel workers and scare off a few students. But this would come at a heavy price.

If stable borders are a modern idea, so, too, are passports. The first identity papers for “safe conduct” were issued in the England of Henry V but the modern passport is a child of the French Revolution. An uprising that dreamed of liberating the citoyens wasted no time in introducing state surveillance: it feared the enemies of the revolution. Britain followed suit in 1794. It wasn’t until the First World War that photographic identification became mandatory. Before then, as A J P Taylor once wrote, “a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state”.

It is hard to imagine such a time now. There are few more emotive reminders of it than the refugee encampment at Calais known as “the Jungle”. A new exhibition on the quiet resilience of the people stuck in that Anglo-French limbo – “Call Me By My Name”, which recently opened at the Londonewcastle Project Space in Shoreditch, east London – highlights again the way in which inflammatory abstractions (“Immigration chaos!”; “Take back control!”) can trounce ordinary human responses. After all, when the von Trapp family, the illegal migrants in The Sound of Music, finally make it over the border, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

In medieval times Calais was a major English town, a bustling centre of its wool trade. Dick Whittington was its mayor; there was a royal mint. The inhabitants of the Jungle may not know it, but their footsteps have led them to a resonant spot. l

Robert Winder is the author of Bloody Foreigners: the Story of Immigration to Britain (Abacus)

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink