Information Warfare: Trolls Triumphant

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June 21, 2016: Back in 2013 it was thought that the Chinese effort to pay people to disrupt anti-government discussion on the Internet was failing. This involved the notorious 50 Cent Party, an army of paid and volunteer pro-government trolls (those who leave messages to annoy or deceive rather than inform or amuse) to sought to stifle criticism of the Chinese dictatorship. It turns out that the defeat of the trolls was partly true, but that in fact the Chinese censors quietly changed their approach and, until recently, managed to hide that fact that 50 Cent Party did not fade away but instead mutated and deliberately made it look like they were largely gone. What killed The 50 Cent Party 1.0 was too many people becoming aware of paid messages showing up in social media and messaging areas throughout the Internet. This was especially true in China, where the concept began as a form of marketing. The government quietly began 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 were volunteers or just did it to earn a little extra money. If you could post in foreign languages, especially colloquial English, you made more. Very few members of the original 50 Cent Army (as the mercenary posters were also known) made lots of money.

After a few years more and more Internet users automatically recognized and ignored the paid messages and went out of their way to teach others what to look for. In the West many moderators of message boards had tools that allowed them to instantly delete the accounts of paid posters and all their paid posts. In China you could get arrested for doing that but not for just ignoring the paid propaganda.

Many Internet users always felt that the 50 Cent Party was still operating but using different tactics that made it harder to detect their messages. This was confirmed in 2015 after a branch office of the Chinese censorship and propaganda organization was hacked and much of what was taken appeared on the Internet. One of these hacked items was a collection of 40,000 comments posted by members of the suspected 50 Cent Party 2.0. A statistical analysis of these messages yielded an algorithm that could be run against messages posted to message boards since 2013. Sure enough, the 50 Cent Party 2.0 was out there, operational and apparently now staffed with government employees, no volunteers. These 50 Cent Party 2.0 posters are believed to be posting over 1.2 million messages a day.

The 50 Cent Party 2.0 messages have a different purpose, concentrating on disrupting efforts of Chinese Internet users to organize larger demonstrations against unpopular policies. There are often disagreements and arguments among Chinese angry about some government caused problem (corruption, pollution, persecution) and the 50 Cent Party 2.0 is under orders to discreetly keep these disruptive disagreements going as long as possible. Apparently the government is satisfied with the number of street demonstrations or open calls for political change that never happen because the groups trying to organize them fall apart because of internal disagreements. The 50 Cent Party 2.0 posters do not bother with people just complaining about the government or even providing details. All that matters is preventing groups from forming and growing into something that really threatens government control.

The original 50 Cent Party 1.0 effort began in 2005, 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 Party. 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.

 


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