Since late 2016 there have been frequent accusations of Russia interfering in American elections. This was accomplished by using government directed messages to be posted, on a massive scale, in social media and other online sites. One aspect of this that didn’t attract much media attention was that this technique, and its use by foreign governments in the United States, was nothing new. This sort of thing has been widely used on the Internet for over a decade and for generations before that there was “astroturfing” (creating fake “grass roots” support with a variety pre-Internet techniques) and more lavishly funded Soviet efforts called dezinformatsiya (disinformation) operations.
During the Cold War the communist rulers of the Soviet Union invented or expanded on all sorts of propaganda, deception and indoctrination techniques that are still widely copied (and often condemned) because they work. At least sometimes. In the end all that dezinformatsiya did not prevent the Soviet empire from collapsing and disintegrating. Some of those techniques have been updated and continue to serve the current rulers of Russia. One of them involves the Internet and is believed particularly useful (or at least through to be) in Russia.
While technically a democracy, modern Russia has evolved into yet another dictatorship. This is because out of the ashes of the Soviet Union there arose an oligarchy with enough cash and propaganda skills, not to mention control of most mass media, to get elected and make most Russians support what the new government wants. A key tool in this was using freewheeling Internet based message boards to mold and manipulate public opinion. This sort of thing has been around since the Internet began its explosive growth in 2001, as it went from 500 million users to four billion now.
It wasn’t long before many Internet users noticed that messages posted by propagandists (or PR specialists) were showing up in social media and messaging areas throughout the Internet. This was especially true in China. There is where it all began; the idea of quietly paying Internet users a small fee to post pro-government (or company) 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 "50 Cent Army" (as the mercenary posters were also known) made lots of money and most were reviled by their online peers as a bunch of trolls (those who leave messages to annoy rather than inform or amuse).
By 2015 Russia had turned Internet trolling into a profession with full time workers getting paid $700 to $1,000 a month (plus bonuses for especially effective efforts) and working in office settings rather than from home. These professional trolls mainly write in Russian, to encourage pro-government opinions among Russian Internet users. The government also has an international program that pays a lot more because of the need for good foreign language skills. That means the ability to “write like a native” not only in terms of grammar but in terms of the Internet idioms unique to each language or country. The key here is not so come off as a Russian troll but a local.
Even before Russia had turned Internet trolling into a profession Israel kicked this process up a level in 2013 by establishing a special tuition assistance program for university students who agreed to regularly post messages on the Internet to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Israel propaganda. While Israel is unique in being one of the few countries to admit doing this, many others have been caught at it and continue to deny any official involvement. One example is North Korea, which South Korea believes has had (since at least 2014) several hundred operatives who are basically full-time “Internet Apes”, whose sole task is to battle anti-North Korean sentiments on South Korean Internet message areas and push the idea that North Korea is a better place to live than it actually is.
By 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 Internet Apes (paid posters) and all their paid-for posts. In China you can get arrested for doing that but not for just ignoring the paid propaganda. Israel leaves it up to the “operators” to reveal they are semi-official or keep quiet about that. By using carefully selected university students the Israelis are better able to avoid detection and deliver more effective messages. This could be a key advantage of this program
The Chinese began to use of this practice in 2005, when 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. By 2010 the Russian government adopted the practice and before long there was 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, especially when experienced and skilled posters were used. In this area quantity does not really match quality.
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. As happened elsewhere, bloggers and posters with a large following were 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 was 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.