South Korea is again having problems with its national intelligence agency (NIS or National Intelligence Service) going rogue. This time it is the discovery that not only did the NIS conduct illegal Information War operations against the losing candidate in last year’s presidential election, but also arranged to have an earlier criminal investigation of that Information War activity suppressed. The facts did not stay suppressed and now the government has agreed to reform the NIS.
There is a déjà vu aspect to all this because the NIS was created to replace a previous rouge intel agency (the KCIA). The NIS misdeeds weren’t as bad as those of the KCIA (kidnapping, murder, extortion, theft, and so on). The NIS stands accused of having some of its operatives run an online smear campaign against a presidential candidate seen as too leftist and likely to help keep the North Korean dictatorship in power. This consisted of NIS operatives using several hundred different email addresses to post 1,900 messages criticizing candidates seen as leftist sympathizers of North Korea. What caused the most political ruckus was the 73 messages against the losing presidential candidate. But in an analysis of the campaign, the millions of political messages posted online during the campaign concluded that the NIS effort was too small and innocuous to have had any impact on the election outcome.
No one wants to dismantle the NIS, if only because it has been very effective in carrying out its legal responsibilities. This includes keeping tabs on North Korea and, in particular, investigating the recent increase of Internet hacking attacks from the north. The NIS figured out that a major series of attacks last year could be traced back to North Korean Ministry of Post and Telecommunications facilities. While there was no apparent damage from these attacks (which hit government sites in South Korea and the United States), similar attacks have made away with secret data.
The NIS has uncovered other North Korean and Chinese Information War programs. One if these was the use of bogus Internet messages to influence public opinion, and that is what it was recently busted for. What was unusual about that was the fact that whoever came up with that idea missed the point. That is, you have to unleash a lot more than 1,900 messages to have any impact. NIS, for example, uncovered a similar operation in North Korea, which used over 200 military intelligence operatives to post pro-North Korea messages on South Korean message boards and social media sites. The North Koreans also impersonate real South Koreans by using stolen passwords for South Korean Internet users.
These tactics began in China, where the “50 Cent Army” was born and has proven effective if done on a large enough scale. But after nearly a decade of use, the concept is running out of gas. Too many people 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 government has long been 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 a lot of money.
But 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.
The practice began a decade ago, as 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" or "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.
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 also adopted 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.