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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

Chris McGrath/Getty Images
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Fight to the death in Mosul

The street-by-street battle against Islamic State for control of Iraq’s second city.

The men of Iraq’s special forces map their victories over Islamic State (IS) by tracing the scars on their bodies. “These four bullets were from a sniper in Ramadi,” said one soldier, lifting his shirt to show a pockmarked torso. A gap-toothed gunner called Ahmad turned a wrist and revealed his wound, a souvenir from Fallujah. Their commander’s close-cropped hair has deep furrows, the result of a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attack in the same city.

Both Ramadi and Fallujah were retaken from IS this year, which restored the confidence of the Iraqi military after its humiliating retreat from the terror group. Two years ago, the Iraqi army ran from Mosul and a caliphate was declared. Now, the soldiers’ task is to build on their recent gains and liberate the country’s second-largest city.

At the tip of the spear in Mosul is the Iraqi Special Operations Forces’ 1st Brigade, also known as the Golden Division. It is commanded by Major Salam al-Abeidi, the man who survived the RPG attack in Fallujah and led the offensive against IS in Ramadi. He is a compact figure, a black streak of ­motion in his special forces uniform, never at rest. (“He would exhaust 20 soldiers,” said one of his men.) He prefers to be on the offensive. “It’s when we are in defensive positions that we take the most casualties,” he told me.

Al-Abeidi does not smile much, but he enjoys a joke. In his hands is always one of three things: a walkie-talkie, a can of Red Bull, or a cigarette. His seven-month-old German shepherd, named Caesar, has recently joined him at the special forces headquarters. Most of his men, fearless when fighting IS, are terrified of the puppy.

The major leads from the front. In the morning, he is on patrol; in the afternoon, he is on the roof guiding air strikes. One evening, I found him climbing into a tank, heading out to defend a road. “Do you ever sleep?” I asked.

“Sleep? I drink 20 cans of this a day,” he joked, holding up the energy drink.

The Golden Division is making slow but steady progress through the eastern residential neighbourhoods of Mosul. This city is different from the ones in his previous campaigns, the major told me.

“Most of the areas we fought in while in Ramadi were nearly empty of residents,” he said. “Here, it’s heavily populated, making the security forces very cautious while advancing, so as to avoid civilian casualties. The enemy uses a lot of car bombs.”

The Zahra (formerly known as Saddam) and Qadisiya 1 districts of eastern Mosul are the battlegrounds of the moment. IS has blocked the streets with concrete barriers to impede the Iraqi military advance, and the Iraqi army has constructed earthen berms with the aim of slowing down the IS car bombers. The gunfire is constant; so, too, are the boom and thud of suicide attacks and coalition air strikes.

“Here come the French,” said al-Abeidi, as fighter aircraft roared overhead while another explosion shook the eucalyptus and citrus trees of the neighbourhood’s gardens.

On the front line, a four-lane road separates the Golden Division’s Bravo Company from IS. On the lookout in an abandoned house, a young sniper named Abbas pointed out a dead IS fighter lying a few hundred metres away. “Over the last four days, I killed three Da’esh [the Arabic acronym for IS]. But my buddy, he killed four or five,” he said.

A car bomb detonated nearby, the shock wave blowing out what was left of the room’s windows. A French photographer accompanying us, who had refused to wear a helmet, almost dropped his cigarette.

Abbas fired into IS territory, a precaution in case the car bomb was followed by attackers on foot. He continued: “Here, the difficult thing for us is that IS fighters carry babies in their arms, and all of them look the same – they have beards.”

Outside, it looked and smelled like a war zone. Shops had been destroyed and I saw a burnt-out suicide truck that had crashed into a storefront. The street was littered with the remnants of another car bomb.

Car bombs are the IS equivalent of cruise missiles. The militants have no aircraft, so they rig up and deploy these heavily armoured high explosives on wheels instead. The unit I was with had at least two a day aimed at it. They move fast and are often hidden, lying in wait. Only when the military think that a neighbourhood is clear do they appear, driven at speed and often with deadly precision.

None of the forces fighting IS – the Iraqi army, the Kurdish peshmerga, the Shia militias – releases casualty numbers. If any ever does, these will show that many of their men were killed by car bombs.

To avoid the militants’ RPGs and sniper fire, Bravo Company created rat runs through homes and backyards. My guide to the front line was called Sergeant Haider. Rooms and upturned domestic life flashed past us. The sergeant’s Frank Zappa moustache and wraparound shades were complemented by a grey knitted beanie. He looked like he should have been snowboarding, not touring a front line.

“There are many more Da’esh here than in Anbar,” he said, referring to the province where Fallujah and Ramadi are situated. “Because this area has been under its control for two and a half years, Da’esh has really taken control. This looks like just the beginning of [retaking] Mosul.”

Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, wants Mosul “liberated” by the end of the year. That is unlikely to happen. It will take a month at least, perhaps more, to make it to the banks of the Tigris, which runs through the city. And IS is concentrated in the west. Across the river, there is worse to come.

***

The scar that Rana Ibrahim Hamad carries is not visible. It is a memory of the baby she lost shortly after giving birth during IS rule. “I lost the baby because doctors were not available. The baby had a brain haemorrhage and died,” she told me, standing on the street. We could hear the sounds of a gun battle nearby but Rana didn’t blink – she had grown used to it.

It was the first time that she, her husband, Amer, and their three-year-old daughter, Azel, had left their home in five days. Until then, the fighting around them had been too fierce.

Rana was pregnant again and ready to give birth any day. After detailed questioning by the military, the family would be allowed to leave for a hospital in Erbil. An armoured Humvee would be their ambulance.

She told me that she hoped that having the new child would help her forget her loss. “Life is difficult,” she said. “We all live in fear. Pain is coming from fear. I pray it gets better.”

In October, I flew over Mosul with the Iraqi air force. It was not on a combat run, but on a propaganda mission. Under a bomber’s moon – full and bright – the planes dropped leaflets by the million, sometimes still in their cardboard boxes, from the side doors of a C-130 cargo plane. Below, the land was lit up, roads and buildings illuminated and stretching for miles in the dark. From 17,000 feet, Mosul didn’t look like a city under occupation. It looked alive.

Later, in its industrial suburbs, I found a few of the leaflets in the dirt. Some, at least, had found their target.

“Nineveh, we are coming,” they proclaimed, a promise to Mosul and the surrounding province. They encouraged people to stay away from IS buildings. And the Iraqi government told people not to flee. It feared that there would be a humanitarian crisis if the city, which has more than a million residents, were to empty.

As Mosul’s fight enters its second month, however, services are still largely absent. “The army brought us food and lentils but there’s no government,” said Bushra, a woman from the city of Tikrit who is now trapped in Mosul. “We are living, but [we have] no water or electricity. We sleep at eight. We don’t have any services. I didn’t get my husband’s salary this month. We live off his pension.”

As the men of the Golden Division move through houses and parts of the city, they find more than just IS dead, weapons and supplies. They also discover records of rule. Although the group is cruel and murderous, it keeps tidy books and distributes welfare. We found dozens of the militants’ ledgers, recording payments made to widows, the poor and the sick.

***

Across Iraq, senior military and police commanders complain that Baghdad is not moving fast enough to fill the gaps left by the fighting, and that although they distribute water, food and medicine to local people, their men must come first.

In the war against IS, no city has been bombed more than Mosul. The coalition air strikes come day and night. The only let-up is during bad weather, which also results in ground operations being paused.

According to some monitoring groups, as many as 1,300 civilians have been killed in coalition air strikes so far. Yet it is Islamic State that is doing most of the killing, through executions and sniper and mortar attacks. The militants have murdered and continue to murder hundreds of people inside the city each week.

During one patrol, an IS sniper pinned down the unit I was with inside a house. One by one, the soldiers ran to their armoured vehicles – me among them – and to safety. The bangs sounded especially loud. We soon discovered why. The marksman was firing armour-piercing bullets. One managed to penetrate the turret of a Humvee and the gunner inside it was wounded.

Mosul, the beautiful, once-cosmopolitan centre of northern Iraq, became a mystery under IS. The fighters cut off its contact with the outside world. At the edge of the city, I walked through a former IS workshop. There, between 20 and 30 men had cast and milled mortar shells every day. Thousands of the steel casts remained in piles, waiting to be finished. The roof of the foundry had been peppered with shrapnel. IS had tried to conceal the factory from passing aircraft by burning oil fires through the roof.

It struck me then that the militants had spent their two years in Mosul with one priority in mind: preparing for this battle. Who knew how many mortar shells, filled with explosives, were now inside the city, ready to be fired? This was weapons production on an industrial scale.

“Isis was scared shitless of the Iraqi soldiers. Believe me, we saw. They pissed their pants,” said Alaa, an English teacher who lives near the front line. White flags were hanging from homes along the street. He described to me the past few days of fighting and how the Iraqi special forces had ­arrived in his neighbourhood.

“Now I feel safe, because they are here,” he said. “And if they need any support, all these people will be with them. Even the people who were influenced by the Isis talk, now they are not, because they endured two years of suffering, two years of depravation, two years of killing, mass killing.”

At the mosque across the street from Alaa’s house, males over the age of 13 were being lined up for security screening, to see if they were IS supporters. The soldiers kept their distance, fearful of suicide bombers. The local people carried their identification papers. Some had shaved off their beards but others had not. They did not share Alaa’s optimism, and said they were afraid that IS could return.

***

Safar Khalil’s wound had no time to heal and become a scar. The bright red hole in his chest came from an IS sniper round, his brothers said. A medic tried to plug it with his finger and stabilise him but the damage inside was too great. Safar’s lungs were gone.

He spewed out dark, thick blood. His face was covered in it. And there, in front of me, he died.

Two of his brothers – one a small boy, the other a young man – stood screaming nearby. They had left their home only a few moments earlier to sell eggs. An army sleeping bag was brought to cover Safar’s face. At first, I thought he was a teenager, because the blood and gore made it difficult to tell how old he was. On his right hand, he wore a heavy ring with an amber stone. Afterwards, I learned that he was 26.

They took his body on a cart back to his home. From inside the house, grief exploded. The women, his relatives, tried to run out, fear and rage written on their faces. But it seemed that the sniper was still nearby, so they were pushed back inside and a family member pulled hard on the metal door to keep them contained.

The women’s voices filled the neigh­bourhood. In the middle of the street, looking horribly alone, Safar’s body lay on the cart. It was not yet safe enough to take him to the cemetery.

There are other fronts in the war to retake Mosul: the federal police and army are moving in from the south and may soon retake what is left of the city’s airport. To the west, the Shia militias of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces have cut off escape routes to Raqqa in Syria and are on top of the IS stronghold of Tal Afar. In the north, several towns and villages have been taken by the Iraqi army’s 16th Division and the Kurdish peshmerga.

But it is in the east that Mosul proper is being cleared of IS militants. Major al-Abeidi’s convoy was hit again the other day. He sent me pictures of his badly damaged Humvee and complained that he had lost the car and spilled his energy drink.

“We’ll be at the river in weeks,” he said confidently. Until then, eastern Mosul and its people will remain in the maelstrom – surviving not in a city, but on a battlefield.

Quentin Sommerville is the BBC’s Middle East correspondent

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile