South Korea is again having many problems this year with Internet trolls. These are people who go online to disrupt or subvert discussions on message boards, blogs, or services like Twitter. Earlier this year South Korea found that even its own national intelligence agency (NIS or National Intelligence Service) had assigned some of their personnel to troll against a candidate (not the winner) in the 2012 presidential election. On the plus side, the NIS also uncovered similar North Korean and Chinese programs. These are basically people using bogus Internet messages to influence public opinion. China has been using this sort of thing for over a decade and quickly started using these tactics outside China, especially in South Korea. North Korea has since followed the Chinese example and was found to have over 200 military intelligence operatives working 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. Recently North Korean operatives were caught operating in China, where they posted nasty comments about South Korea and defended North Korea.
These tactics began in China, where the concept of the “50 Cent Army” was born and proved effective if done on a large enough scale. But after nearly a decade of use, the concept is running out of gas in a lot of places. 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 soon 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," "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.