September 7, 2013: Israel recently announced a special tuition assistance program for university students who agree to regularly post messages on the Internet to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Israel propaganda. This sort of thing has been around for over a decade and many Internet users are becoming aware of paid messages showing up in social media and messaging areas throughout the Internet. This is especially true in China, where the concept began (of quietly paying Internet users a small fee to post pro-government responses on message boards where some company or the government is being criticized or maligned). For some members of the original Chinese "50 Cent Party" it was a full time job, receiving up to 50 cents (two yuan) each for up to a hundred pro-government messages posted a day, using several dozen different accounts. But most of the posters are volunteers or just do it to earn a little extra money. If you can post in foreign languages, especially colloquial English, you make more. Very few members of the "50 Cent Army" (as the mercenary posters were also known) made lots of money and most were reviled by their online peers as a bunch of trolls (those who leave messages to annoy rather than inform or amuse).
The new Israeli program has not become official yet and may die from a reality check, as its proponents realize (if they don’t already) the history of these techniques. While Israel is unique in being one of the few countries to admit doing this, many others have been caught at it and continue to deny any official involvement. One recent example is North Korea, which South Korea believes has at least 200 operatives who are basically full-time Internet Apes, whose sole task is to battle anti-North Korean sentiments on South Korean Internet message areas and push the idea that North Korea is a better place to live than it actually is.
By now many Internet users automatically recognize and ignore the paid messages and go out of their way to teach others what to look for. In the West many moderators of message boards have tools that allow them to instantly delete the accounts of paid posters and all their paid posts. In China you can get arrested for doing that but not for just ignoring the paid propaganda. Israel leaves it up to the “operators” to reveal they are semi-official or keep quiet about that. By using carefully selected university students the Israelis are better able to avoid detection and deliver more effective messages. This could be a key advantage of this program
Government use of this practice began eight years ago, when Chinese propaganda officials sought ways to deal with growing anti-government activity on Internet message boards. One idea was to organize the pro-government posters already out there. The propaganda bureaucracy (which is huge in China) did so and got so many volunteers that they soon developed a test to select the most capable posters and also set up training classes to improve the skills of these volunteers. Cash bonuses were offered for the most effective work. At one point, the government had nearly 100,000 volunteers and paid posters operating. This quickly evolved into the 50 Cent Army. In the last few years the Russian government has adopted the practice and now we have the 50 Ruble Army in Russia.
The Chinese eventually realized that quality was better than quantity because the less articulate posters were easily spotted, and ridiculed, as members of the "50 Cent Army," "Internet Apes," or the “Water (because of the zombie accounts used for posting) Army.” This was especially the case outside China. Inside China people just learned to ignore the government posters. But the more skilled Internet Apes often appear convincing to many people following Internet based discussions. The 50 Cent Army was often a very worthwhile investment, especially when experienced and skilled posters were used. In this area quantity does not really match quality.
In the United States the same techniques were adopted to push political candidates or commercial products. There it was called "viral marketing." The CIA has used a similar technique to counter anti-American, or pro-terrorist, activity on the Internet. This activity also made it easier to spot potential terrorists or potential informants.
Russia is adopting the Chinese technique of harnessing the enthusiasm of pro-government volunteers. As happened elsewhere, bloggers and posters with a large following are also enticed to be pro-government, for a fee (or perhaps because of a few threats).
This practice of buying favorable attention in the media is nothing new and is centuries old. The U.S. is unique in that, for about a century, the American mass media has been largely free of this blatant bribery. But in most of the world, a clever journalist quickly attracts the attention of people who will pay for some favorable comments. It's no secret, although many journalists insist they are not bought.