Toxic Tasks: Mobilising The “50-Cent Army”

“Pollution above the Forbidden City in Beijing,” by Bafac available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.

When public opinion is poisoned by the state, what exactly does this process look like? Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a public opinion quality monitor to give us readings on just how exposed we are to particulate lies and nonsense in our media environments.

But in China, where news control and propaganda are viewed as critical daily business by wary Communist Party leaders — a process they refer to, in their carefully refined lingo, as “public opinion guidance” — we are sometimes offered a glimpse into the sordid process of opinion manufacturing, and its noxious byproducts.

An image of a directive to “Internet commentators” on the Pu Zhiqiang case, released on Chinese social media [translation available from China Digital Times].

This week, a propaganda directive on the trial and sentencing of rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was issued (by exactly which agency we know not) to paid “Internet commentators,” known in Chinese internet jargon as the “50-cent Party,” or wumaodang (五毛党). These propaganda workers, some of whom are paid on a peace-meal basis — 50 cents a post it was once rumoured, hence the popular moniker — can be mobilised at all levels of China’s vast Party-state structure to “channel” sensitive topics and breaking news stories away from destabilising speculation. The idea is for them to descend on chat threads or forums, social media and other places where public opinion is made in order to lead the conversation in what the authorities would consider a more healthy direction.

Readers can see an image of the Pu Zhiqiang directive above, this version shared on Sina Weibo and later deleted (but still living in our Weiboscope archive). It instructs “Internet commentators” to focus their activity on the Tencent-operated website QQ.com, the news aggregation site Toutiao, and news apps, posting their comments as soon as the official news release from the state-run Xinhua News Agency is public. The directive even lists the URL for a discussion thread accompanying a recent “Today on History” column about Pu Zhiqiang.

The comments available beneath the “Today on History” column are a very illustrative example of how so-called “Internet commentators” are mobilised to mislead discussion and define the noxious tone on sensitive news stories. A translation of the top 6 comments follows, along with the region in which the users posting the comments are located:

[User from Guangdong province, Shenzhen] The scum of the legal profession! Now that he’s arrested, he should regret what he’s done!
[User from Henan province, Luoyang] We must firmly uphold the unity of our people!
[User from Hunan province] The online world isn’t beyond the read of the law. I support judicial organs in going after the fabricators of online rumours, and preserving the online environment.
[User from Hunan province, Zhangjiajie] This is the kind of rule of law I support!
[User from Jiangxi province] As a lawyer who knows and understands the law, for him to break the law like this is even more disgusting.
[User from WeChat] He should admit his guilt in court and get the punishment he deserves!

For the toxic taskmasters of public opinion guidance, the ends always justify the means — even if eliminating the “falsehoods” that undermine the standing of the Chinese Communist Party means poisoning the principle of truth itself.

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