Since 2000, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been mobilising 五毛党 colloquially known as the 50-cent army – internet trolls that sway public opinion in favour of the CCP.
The regime hires mostly government employees, at supposedly RMB 0.5 per post (hence its name) to fabricate lies and strike critics on social media.
A recent case is the attack on an acclaimed writer, Fang Fang, whose ‘Wuhan Diary’ documenting her first-person account of the outbreak in Wuhan, drew international attention.
Others consist of angry comments directed at overseas social media posts that featured Hong Kong’s anti-extradition law, US-China trade war and CCP virus (COVID-19 pandemic).
Academics said the 50-cent army creates 448 million messages a year; by orders of internal directives to target specific persons or groups, such as to make America “the target of criticism” and “play down the existence of Taiwan”.
These messages form part of CCP’s larger narrative to stir up pro-party sentiments among mainland and overseas Chinese.
Leaked internal directives
Over 2,300 leaked email correspondence between the district government internet propaganda offices in Jiangxi and the 50-cent army in 2013-14, revealed the group’s identity, scheduled assignments and tasks.
Harvard professor of political science, Gary King, who researched and analysed the emails said the bulk of the 50-cent army’s posts were traced to accounts from various levels of bureaus, including the commerce, sports and taxation bureaus.
King’s study on ‘How the chinese government fabricates social media posts for strategic distraction, not engaged argument’ said “almost none of the Chinese government’s 50c party posts engage in debate or argument of any kind”.
Praise and distract
Rather, the group beats the drum of nationalism and China Dream to divert attention from controversial events, such as protests over the outbreak in Wuhan and riots in the Xinjiang region.
The study also revealed that party cadres, civil servants and bureaucrats on public payrolls form the 50-cent army – not ordinary citizens hired for piecemeal wages, as previously thought.
Contents of the 50-cent army posts are categorised into five areas:
- Taunting of foreign countries – Ridiculing western democracies
- Argumentative praise or criticism – Criticising netizens for pro-western views or opinion
- Non-argumentative praise or suggestion – Praising CCP officials
- Factual reporting – Promoting government programs, events and initiatives
- Cheerleading – Expressing patriotism, inspirational slogans and the love for the party (This accounts for over 60 percent of all posts and contents)
King said the 50-cent army did not post randomly. Statistical data showed concerted efforts by government bureaus to post intensively at set times to target major or controversial events.
In cases where such events trigger public outcries, the volume of related posts to ‘praise and distract’ would correspondingly multiply.
Spreading lies, hatred and fear
Known for meddling international opinions, the 50-cent army was allegedly behind the spike in online supporters and popularity of pro-Beijing candidate, Han Kuo-Yu in both his runs for Kaohsiung’s mayorship in 2018 and Taiwan’s presidency in 2020.
The Politics and Foreign Policy Journals pointed out that “massive secretive operations” had helped Han attack political opponents and netizens through multiple social media accounts.
Similar incidents took place in Hong Kong last year when the 50-cent army attempted to discredit the city’s anti-extradition bill movement on social media.
Investigations had led Twitter to shut down 936 dubious accounts that “spread false information” and “harm the rationality of the political movement in Hong Kong”.
During the same period, Facebook also removed several pages, groups and accounts linked to the 50-cent army on grounds of “coordinated inauthentic behaviour from China”.
Facebook said in its statement: “Although the people behind these actions tried to hide their identities, our investigation found that these individuals are related to the Chinese government.”
Earlier this year, CCP again activated its 50-cent army to spread rumours to conceal the coronavirus pandemic which had killed millions globally.
The 50-cent army blanketed global networks, websites and social media channels with replicable templates (see below) to stir panic while praising China’s successful containment of the virus.
A translation of the post:
The pandemic in Japan is out of control. A Japanese friend said hospitals were flooded by patients everyday. They were unable to conduct virus tests and sent the patients home. Due to Japan’s aging population, countless patients had died, without diagnosis at home after contacting the virus. That explains why Japan still maintains its low coronavirus cases. This is horrible. I’ve booked a flight back to China. During the most crucial period of time, only a government (like the Chinese regime) which has authoritarian power can effectively handle such a big crisis.
*Underlined words were replaced with France, Canada and Australia.
Training guides exposed
Another round of leaks in March this year detailed training guides to help the 50-cent army “win the information war of online public opinion”.
The leaked documents urged the 50-cent army to “be on guard in defending online presence” and required one to skilfully conceal identities, maintain an “up-to-date attitude” and “collaborate across specialisations” to steer online public opinion.
The training guides, exposed by human rights activist and author Jennifer Zeng, also asked the group to generate fake news or misleading posts in popular forums to “distract or create disputes among netizens, when necessary”.
“And if all else fails, simply confuse forum threads with irrelevant screenshots, images and discussions to cause readers to lose interest,” it suggested.
After all, the document could be right in pointing out that online public opinions are tied to “the life and death of the CCP”.
English translation of #CCP’s instructions of how to win the “information war on internet”, which is vital to its very existence. Western world & any one reading things on internet should definitely take a look, especially now, when we are batting #COVIDー19 #CoronavirusPandemic pic.twitter.com/2U8JWXuSdM
— Jennifer Zeng 曾錚 (@jenniferatntd) March 12, 2020