The 50 Cent Party: China's Paid Internet Commenters

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“50 Cent Party” (五毛党, wu mao dang) is a slang term that’s used, mostly on the internet, to refer to pro-government commenters.

What Is the 50 Cent Party?

The 50 Cent Party is an unofficial name for a group of government employees in China who are paid to influence public opinion by posting comments, articles, and tweets by pretending to be ordinary citizens and defending or promoting the government’s point of view.

The name comes from the fee that one group of government commenters was reportedly paid for their work: 5 mao, or 50 Chinese cents, per post. In actuality, there is a range of pro-government commenters working for various government offices, and their pay can vary quite widely.

It’s not clear how many pro-government commenters are working in China at any particular time. The government is open about its use of these commenters, and it is even possible to receive a certification from China’s Ministry of Culture that qualifies one to hold a position as a paid internet commenter. But there is no official data on how many commenters are employed nationwide; estimates range from a few thousand to several hundred thousand.

Why Does the Government Hire Internet Commenters?

At the beginning of the 21st century, China’s government realized that the internet was an important new public sphere and that political discussions were taking place online.

Just as it attempts to influence public opinion through the use of state-owned media outlets like the CCTV television networks or the People’s Daily newspaper, it sought to influence public opinion online as well. Early local efforts at hiring commenters to counter negative posts with pro-government opinions proved successful, and by 2007 then-President Hu Jintao was urging the government to work even harder on online public opinion management and “positive publicity.”

What Do 50 Cent Party Members Do?

Depending on the office and the specific job, pro-government commenters may be full-time employees or freelance contractors who work on the side. They may be given free reign to promote the government position in a general way as the situation dictates, or they may be given highly specific guidelines that describe how arguments should be framed. One pro-government commentator described it thusly:

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.

Regardless of their directives, though, they are never instructed to openly admit that they are being paid to post their opinions. Instead, they pose as regular internet users engaging in conversation.

For this reason, it is virtually impossible to tell whether or not a pro-government post is a real person’s genuine opinion or whether it is an opinion that has been commissioned by the government. As a result, “50 Cent Party” has become something of an insult on China’s internet, and accusations are likely to be thrown at anyone who expresses a pro-government opinion, even if they’re not being paid by anyone for their posts.

Posts from members of the 50 Cent Party can be found everywhere, from local web forums to national social media platforms like Sina Weibo or Renren. For obvious reasons, they tend to focus on discussions with some degree of political relevance, and when a controversial national political issue arises, they tend to turn out in large numbers. Their tactics can be quite advanced. From an interview with a pro-government commenter:

In a forum [discussion], 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.

Paid commenters will also sometimes use jokes, off-topic ramblings, offensive rants, and other forms of distraction to keep net users from paying attention to the substance of a particularly thorny political issue.

Effectiveness and Perception

Pro-government commenters are generally not well-liked on China’s internet; as previously mentioned, the term “50 Cent Party” is generally used as a derogatory slur. But their tactics can still be effective in derailing or refocusing discussions, and it’s not rare to see regular commenters abandon a thread in frustration, grumbling about “50 cent party members” real or imagined. One pro-government commenter estimated that something like 10-20 percent of China’s online comments was coming from paid commenters; with that level of saturation, it’s quite likely these workers are having at least some effect.