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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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First they came for Pepe: How “ironic” Nazism is taking over the internet

Over the last year, various internet subcultures have embraced Nazi iconography while simultaneously claiming to hold no Nazi beliefs. Why?

There is a scene in Roman Polanski’s critically-acclaimed World War Two film The Pianist in which the Jewish protagonist, played by Adrien Brody, puts on a German soldier’s coat to keep warm.

“Don’t shoot!” he tells the Polish troops who have come to liberate Warsaw. “I’m Polish!” A soldier, realising his mistake, lowers his gun. With disdain on his face, he asks: “Why the fucking coat?”

The chilly hero might not have been acting unreasonably, but neither was the soldier. It's safe to say that in normal circumstances, "Nazi coat" can be used as shorthand for "Nazi person". I found myself asking a similar question last month when I interviewed a “Nazi furry”. The furry (ie. person who dresses as an animal, often for sexual reasons) likes to wear a red armband reminiscent of those worn by the Nazi party. “It’s just a piece of cloth,” he said at the time, insisting he held no far-right views. Then why not choose another piece of cloth? I wondered to myself.

This furry is just one of hundreds of people online who flaunt the iconography of National Socialism whilst denying they hold any Nazi views. If that doesn’t make sense, it shouldn’t. “Ironic” Nazism, “satirical” Nazism, and “just joking” Nazism have taken over the internet. Who is behind it, what are they doing, and how did it begin?

***

***

Unfortunately, it is probably Hillary Clinton’s fault. In September 2016, the presidential hopeful’s website declared popular internet meme Pepe the Frog to be a white supremacist symbol. If we ignore that this has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy (racists embraced Pepe after the Anti-Defamation League chimed in and officially declared the meme a hate symbol), this was a frankly ridiculous assertion.

“We've won folks... My God ...We've won,” read a post on r/TheDonald – the Reddit hub for Donald Trump supporters – after the news. They didn't hold back with their disdain. “This makes her look absolutely retarded to anyone young enough to be on the internet,” read the top comment. Why? White supremacists were undoubtedly already using the meme – many on the notoriously politically incorrect 4Chan board /pol/ had emblazoned the frog with swastikas. So why wasn’t it, in turn, a white supremacist symbol?

The answer to this is irony. Layers and layers of it slathered with thick, glutinous nonsense that form a Bruce Bogtrotter’s cake that is impossible to digest. You and I are what 4Chan would pejoratively call “normies”, i.e. normal people. We can’t possibly hope to understand the difference between someone on 4Chan who holds sincere Nazi beliefs and someone who is shouting “Death to all Jews” for the keks (see glossary), like a toddler who has just learnt the word “poo”.

This doesn’t normally matter – we can just ignore them – but Clinton’s post gave them the legitimacy and media attention that they craved.

It also, I would argue, set off a new internet trend. Angry at liberals labelling everything (most notably, the alt-right) “Nazis”, fringe internet communities decided to fight back. The logic – if it can be called that – went like this:

“Let’s dress like Nazis and act like Nazis so that liberals call us Nazis when we’re not! That will show just how stupid these liberals are!”

***

“The press, the media, does not deserve to have a consistent picture of reality presented to them.”

These are the words of Qu Qu, a man in his late twenties who considers himself the leader of the “alt furry” movement, who is speaking to me over Twitter. Alt furries are furries who have embraced far-right messages and Nazi iconography on the social network. Some wear armbands, others write erotic Nazi literature, some tweet anti-Semitic jokes. When I spoke to some last month, I was shocked when only one of them actually admitted to holding Nazi views. Many claimed they were being “ironic” or fighting back at what they consider to be left-wing intolerance.

“If the press becomes obsessed with a moral panic, such as the one about the resurgence of National Socialism, it is the duty of every subculture to feed that paranoia until its absurdity becomes plain for all to see.”

***

Earlier this week, the king of this logic died.

PewDiePie – the most subscribed content creator on YouTube – was dropped by Disney after the Wall Street Journal exposed an array of anti-Semitic comments in his videos. In the past, he has spoken out against the media for misrepresenting his “jokes”, but this time he wrote a blog post in which he admitted: “I understand that these jokes were ultimately offensive.” What changed?

What changed is that PewDiePie was confronted with a reality that anti-hate campaigners have long since known to be true. After his anti-Semitic videos, PewDiePie was embraced by the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, which is now calling itself “The world’s #1 PewDiePie Fansite.” PewDiePie has learnt a truth that many of the “just joking” brigade frequently try to deny – that satire, irony, and jokes can validate and legitimise hate speech in a way that helps it to spread.

“Pushing out anti-Semitic tropes has consequences in the real world,” says a spokesperson for anti-racism organisation Hope Not Hate. “PewDiePie may or may not believe this stuff himself, but he does need to understand that he has an effect on the world, and that racists and haters can sometimes act on the words and memes that are shared so readily on social channels, and – with soaring hate crime rates – already have.”

***

Then they came for Trash Dove.

The head-banging purple pigeon is a Facebook sticker (a picture users can post in the social network’s comment sections) that went viral this week. In response, 4Chan started “Operation Nazi Bird”, a satirical campaign to turn the meme into a Nazi symbol. The aim was to trick the left.

This started to work when a self-described philosopher known as Quincy Frey wrote a satirical Medium post (which has since been removed after a copyright claim) declaring Trash Dove to be an “alt-right” symbol. When people began to fall for this, 4Chan won. Yet so too – as Hope Not Hate argue – did actual white supremacists.

“What started as irony will now actually spread and this will become a ‘Nazi hate’ symbol whether we like it or not,” Quincy Frey tells me. “The alt-righters from 4Chan work in a funny way; it always starts ironic but they seem to take irony to the next level and then these idiots become brainwashed… eventually their sickness will spread.”

***

Which leaves us with a question that regrettably summarises today’s state of affairs: are ironic Nazis as dangerous as real Nazis?

Simon Johnson, the chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, seems to think so. “It is difficult to understand how people can use Holocaust language, imagery or comments and think that it is a joke,” he says. “The French comedian Dieudonne uses the Quenelle gesture and other supposedly humorous Holocaust imagery, as well as dressing cast members in concentration camp uniforms, as part of his act." The Quenelle gesture was an originally jokey gesture which has grown to be considered anti-Semitic after individuals posed in front of Jewish institutions holding the stance. In December 2013, French President François Hollande reacted to the gesture, saying: "We will fight against the sarcasm of those who purport to be humorists but are actually professional anti-Semites.”

Johnson agrees it is important to tackle this alleged comedy. "For many this demeans the Holocaust and would be considered anti-Semitism. Allowing these acts to continue perpetuates myths and often leads prejudice against the Jewish community.”

It is also important to note that many who claim to be “satirical” Nazis are simply hiding behind a thin veil of plausible deniability. The word “irony” – however incorrectly it’s being used – allows them to spread Nazi messages and iconography whilst denying culpability. It also leaves many on the left unsure where they stand. What’s more important: combatting hate speech or protecting free speech?

Kassie is a 31-year-old graduate student who reached out to me after being mocked for taking Trash Dove seriously as an alt-right symbol - proving that online trends can have real-world consequences. “My friend is liberal but thinks I'm overreacting and don't understand satire,” she tells me. “But I don't get why I have to call Nazi jokes satire.

“The most frustrating part is that my concern is immediately written off as stupid because I don't belong to the community. If we get past that part, then I'm overreacting or dumb because I don't get that it's ironic or I don't understand that it's a joke. But I get that on some level people are saying that it's a joke, and some are ‘just joking’ and I still think that a joke can be racist and misogynist and alt-right or whatever.

“I'm just left with feeling like I've fallen down a hole of ironic devils advocates who use that as an excuse to say ‘funny’ racist and misogynistic things.”

***

When Prince Harry donned a Nazi uniform for a fancy dress party in 2005, no one thought he was actually a fan of Hitler. If ironic Nazis had emerged twelve years ago, they might have been given the same benefit of the doubt by being considered poor taste but not ultimately racist. Yet context is key. In an era when the President of the United States wants a registry of Muslim citizens, and fascism appears to be on the rise across Europe, no one who is “just joking” – not furries, YouTubers, or 4Channers – can be annoyed if the media labels them Nazis.

I do agree that fundamentally it is important to combat the left’s tendency to label everything right-wing “Nazi” or “racist”. Internet subcultures are not wrong to attempt to challenge this and other examples of left-wing extremes. Yet if this is what they really want, then one - very pressing - question remains. Why the fucking coat? 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.