Russian trolls have captured the attention of United States citizens because of their influence on the recent election. But if we actual look at the numbers, China has a larger troll program. The Guardian reports,
The existence of the wumao dang or “50 Cent Party” is not a secret in China, but then it is hard to employ up to two million people secretly. Even the state-owned Global Times reported with approval on the practice in 2010, citing Changsha’s party office as the source of the name after it paid a team of commenters 600 yuan a month in 2004, plus half a yuan – hence “50 cent” – for each glowing post they made.
Since then, paying stooges to praise your work online has become about as routine for
local government in China as hiring traffic wardens. A recent study at Harvard University found that the Chinese authorities were placing 448m phony comments on the internet each year. In an analysis of 43,800 pro-regime comments, the researchers concluded that 99.3% of them were made by civil servants from a wide variety of government departments. The postings tended to come in bursts at testing times, such as during protests or party meetings.
Interestingly, few of the comments qualify as trolling, in the strict sense. Rather than attacking unbelievers, they focus on swamping the doubters with a flood of positive messages, or cleverly diverting the conversation. As with any job, some practitioners are laughably bad at it. In January 2014, quartz.com found many stooges simply cutting and pasting a suggested question into an online discussionwith a party secretary in Ganzhou. “It seems like taxis are far more orderly than in past years,” they all wanted to tell him.
Two years before, however, Ai Weiwei interviewed an anonymous 26-year-old with very sophisticated methods. The young man, whose own family knew nothing of his work, estimated that 10-20% of the comments he saw were left by the 50 Cent Party. He described creating several identities in one forum, and structuring arguments between them so that the most authoritative voice could ultimately settle matters in the government’s favour. Another tactic was to be deliberately provocative, and thus draw public anger on to himself and away from the authorities. “Sometimes I feel like I have a split personality,” he said. “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.”
Estimated troops Between 300,000 and 2m people, many part-time.
Favourite subjects Excellent local facilities, why democracy doesn’t work, Taiwan.