February 12, 2013: Over the past decade it’s become more common for political parties, businesses, and nations to hire people to post lots of favorable messages on the many popular (and influential) message boards on the Internet and social networking sites (like Facebook). The concept of deliberately placing useful opinions in public forums is nothing new. But with the Internet there are a lot more forums to spin in whatever direction you favor.
In the last few years Russia quietly adopted the Chinese tactics of paying Internet users a small fee to post pro-government responses on message boards where 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 posters are volunteers or just do it to earn a little extra money or simply support a cause they agree with. 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 the practice does work.
This all began nine 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 and discipline of the volunteers. Cash bonuses were offered for the most effective work. Soon the government had over 100,000 volunteers and paid posters operating. This quickly evolved into the 50 Cent Army, and now 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." This was especially the case outside China. Inside China people just learned to ignore the government posters. But the more skilled Internet Apes appeared 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 adopted the Chinese technique of harnessing the enthusiasm of pro-government volunteers in order to dilute the growing criticism of the new Russian police state. 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 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. Senior Chinese officials call all this public-opinion guidance and are quite proud of having invented it.