(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

Romola Garai in The Writer.
Show Hide image

The Writer at the Almeida: a drama which tries to have its meaning-cake and eat it

This isn’t a boring, safe three-star play: you’re either Team Five or Team One.

God, the Almeida’s new production knows how to push my buttons. “Don’t you know how hard it is to write a play?” one character shouts at another, two-thirds of the way through. Every fibre of my being wanted to scream back: “Try working down a mine!”

The Writer is an endlessly tricksy piece, trying to have its meaning-cake and eat it, showing you scenes and then immediately undercutting them with meta-narrative. What is it about? Good question. Impossible question. It begins with a young black woman (Lara Rossi) who has left her bag behind in the theatre. On her way out, she is cross-questioned by an older, effortlessly middle-class white man (Samuel West) about the play she’s just seen.

Her criticisms of the state of modern theatre are brutal: women are there to be judged on their looks, while we wait to hear what men will say and do. Girls in hotpants present themselves like animals on heat; actresses are encouraged to get naked on the thinnest of pretexts, when it’s very hard to be both topless and truly empowered. Even worse, the director “added a rape” because that’s seen as being both titillating and “edgy”.

I agreed with all this checklist of chauvinism, and I even recognised the lazy, patronising indulgence of the powerful man trotting out the usual defences in response. Surely, he says, you don’t want to ban people being sexy? The woman points out that she was talking about rape, not sex. Also, doesn’t he recognise her? She knows he directed the play she just watched. He once told her that her anger was impressive six years ago, when she was a student, and that she could have a career in the theatre. (Yes, apparently anger is a proxy for creative ability, which is why the YouTube comments section swept the board at the Oliviers.) Then he tried to kiss her. She didn’t want to accept a job on such compromised terms.

And – scene. Ho ho ho, what we’ve just been watching was, of course, a workshop of a new play. Perched on a folding chair in the middle of the stage, as if taking part in a post-show talk, The Writer (Romola Garai) is chided by another older white man (Michael Gould) that it’s too angry, too lacking in nuance. The problem is: while he is patronising, he is also right. It might have been entirely correct in its sentiments, but as drama, it only had one gear. If I wanted to watch people identify genuine problems with thumping earnestness and zero self-awareness . . . well, there are plenty of left-wing op-ed columnists for that.

This self-referentiality persists throughout. We get a scene with The Writer and her boyfriend, where he wants her to take a film job and she is too principled to do it. They have bad sex on the sofa he has just bought for her. The first scene had mentioned the cheapness of bringing a real baby on stage (a clear dig at The Ferryman), so a real baby is brought on stage. The audience coos appreciatively, because it’s impossible to resist millennia of genetic programming, even when you want to look cool and self-aware.

Then Romola Garai’s character monologues about having a contraceptive coil fitted, which then slips into a story of her swimming through a lake to a lost world where she has lesbian sex outdoors and feels happy for the first time not to experience the male gaze. (I don’t remember there being an obvious segue between the coil and the alfresco cunnilingus.) This "tribal shit" is no way to end a play, says Michael Gould’s Director, who has turned up stage-right. It’s not as good as your angry first scene. Again: the annoying man has a point.

Then he tells the Writer he’s only giving her these notes because he thinks she’s brilliant, which feels like incredible chutzpah in a drama which will inevitably be read as thinly veiled autobiography. (There's another moment like this, when The Director tells her that you can't write a play where the protagonist is endlessly self-involved, and she shoots back: "Hamlet!" It's a great joke, but it does also set the bar quite high for how good the rest of the writing has to be.)

The final scene also features The Writer, this time with her girlfriend, in a smart apartment, eating curry. She’s just handed in a project and wants to relax by going to her girlfriend’s bar to do something “manual” and switch her brain off. Her girlfriend gives her the same unimpressed look at this Marie Antoinette dilettantism that half the audience do.

The couple then have bad sex on the sofa. The Writer, who is clearly now rich and successful, is just as inattentive to her partner’s enjoyment as her boyfriend was before – edging towards the point made by Naomi Alderman’s The Power that it’s not some innate property of the Y chromosome which creates sex inequality, and therefore gender roles could plausibly flip one day. Give a woman a financially dependent, less outwardly successful partner and she can play all the subtle, controlling tricks we associate with rich old men.

I watched The Writer twice; once in previews, and the leaner, tighter version displayed on press night. I enjoyed it more the second time, because - whatever else you can say about this play - it elicits a strong response. Knowing that it would provoke me, not always intentionally, cleared my mind to notice the pacy direction and mostly strong performances by the cast.

In a way, I’m grateful. The Writer has made me think as much as any play I’ve seen this year. It’s prompted a series of searching conversations with the handful of other people I know who’ve seen it. (It also prompted eye-rolls at all the male critics who clearly felt boxed into being nice about it on pain of being identified as Lead Patriarchal Oppressor of British Theatre.) This isn’t a boring, safe three-star play: you’re either Team Five or Team One.

That said, I do resent the meta-theatricality, usurping my right to my own responses by telling me constantly how to feel about what I’ve just seen. The text tries to pre-empt criticisms by voicing them within the play - this is boring, this is too angry, this doesn’t have an ending - when it could work harder to rebut them instead. Are we meant to see The Writer’s complaints about the difficulty of creative work as heartfelt sentiments, expressed with refreshing candour? Most writers I know, male and female, feel similarly, self-indulgently wronged by a world where reality TV is more popular than whatever they’ve slaved over for months. They are just clever enough not to say these things in public, where you might end up talking to, say, an intensive care nurse. Yes, there are flicks of knowingness here and there, but how much ironic distance is there between The Writer’s view of herself and the text’s, in the end? (The play's author, Ella Hickson, has spoken of her dismay at hearing the audience laugh when the female character says at the start that she wants to "dismantle capitalism and overturn the patriarchy", as if that's evidence that we have lost confidence in the transformative power of theatre. But there's a difference between a character expressing ambition and one with a messiah complex. Put it this way: I've written some fairly scorching thinkpieces, but I don't think any of them will stop Brexit. And the closest theatre has recently come to making me want to smash capitalism is when I realised how much I'd spent on tickets to see the binbag-themed Macbeth at the National.)

The Writer invites us to hold it to a terrifyingly high standard, by presenting itself as dangerous – a vivid j’accuse to hidebound theatrical traditions and smug audiences. It elides criticisms of West End celebrity-driven flam and the lazy, highbrow male gaze merchants of the subsidised sector. Its few identifiable targets are not always the most obviously deserving of scorn. (I didn't much like The Ferryman, but there was a proper play hidden under the Riverdance and haunted grandmas.) In the first scene, there’s a glancing reference to Laura Wade’s play Posh, directed by Lyndsey Turner at the Royal Court. It was watched and enjoyed, says the young woman, by exactly the same establishment it sought to satirise. The choice of example sits oddly in a jeremiad against patriarchy, because this was a rare new-ish play both written by a woman and directed by one. Is The Writer on the side of these women struggling to be heard in a male-dominated industry? It doesn’t feel like it. Perhaps Posh should have featured a scene where we were told that the Bullingdon Club is bad, as is capitalism generally, just to hammer the point home? But that’s absurd, because there is no way that play left the audience in any doubt that they were meant to despise the Oxbridge window-smashers. Perhaps some people are simply beyond the reach of theatrical guilt-trips.

The Almeida has had an astonishing run over the last year, with awards and West End transfers raining from the heavens. But the Writer – inevitably – suggests on stage that her play has only been programmed because it would have been too awkward for a white middle-class male artistic director to reject it, in the era of Time’s Up and #MeToo. I didn’t like the audience’s knowing, indulgent laughter in that moment. It felt like the joke was on us, and we didn’t know it.

The Writer runs at the Almeida, London, until 26 May

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

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