Table of Contents
by Eugene Michaels
From the closing of many Weibo accounts that posted fake comments or were run by scammers to the latest arrest of more than 70 members of the so-called “water army” （水军） in Guangzhou. However, this arrest comes as a paradox to the Chinese government doings, who have their commentator army, colloquially called “50 cent army” (五毛党).
What are these “armies” and how paid commentators are the main discussion participants on the Chinese social media platforms?
To begin with, let’s discuss the infamous “water army.” These people are ready to “flood” blogs, forums, and chat groups for whoever is willing to pay for the biased comments, rumors, and information or disinformation. Apparently, there is a lot of demand for the service and even more people willing to join the army, notably, low-end migrants, homemakers, and even students, who are lacking money. They send the paid-for content to various platforms and receive from tens of cents to several yuan per post.
Many companies at least think about using such services, as a vast number of positive recommendations can lead to a much better position in the market. Organizations, which already spend millions for releasing new goods and services, might decide to use any tool available for them to achieve higher sales.
Paid posting business is well-managed and involves thousands of individuals each controlling tens of different online IDs on a variety of social media platforms. The posters are usually requested to register on a specific website and begin spreading the news about a brand, generating content, answering inquiries, or posting links to sites and videos.
Despite being a widely popular service and having thousands of members, the “water army” has been under an increasing scrutiny from the government. In cooperation with researchers, the government has been using a constantly-updated software that helps recognize these commentators. From the contents of the reviews to their posting time habits, to even the frequency of the comments, specific patterns help crackdown on the fake reviews and people behind them.
Since May, when the more ongoing crackdown began, the authorities arrested several hundred suspects and shut down thousands of social media accounts involved in spamming. The government is openly getting more and more severe about the false news on the social media.
50 Cent Army
On the other side of the commentators’ barricades is the state-backed “50 Cent Army”, much larger in numbers and much more powerful. Reportedly, the “50 Cent Army” has anywhere between 500.000 and 2 million members. The name is an old-time insult that these people earn 50 cents for each comment they make. However, in reality, these are the government personnel, who are paid official salaries, posing as common netizens and nonchalantly praising patriotism online.
The “50 cent army” members do not write negative comments, they remain quite positive about the nation and attempt to boost patriotism without sounding extremist. They also tend to keep away from political debates or arguments. These commenters usually do their best to redirect the public opinion from any scandalous and adverse events happening and make the discourse online more positive. In general, they manage to churn out almost 500 million posts and comments a year.
Nonetheless, nowadays more and more people are aware of the doings of these government bureaucrats and rarely fall for their disguise. The bureaucrats also are slower to keep up with the fast-changing trending topics and discussions of the youths.
The Chinese social media seems to have become a battleground for fake commenters and patriotic politicians. For regular netizens, this has become dull background noise for the honest discussions.
And on the last note, it is usually not recommended to click on spam links, especially if you notice the person sharing same content suspiciously frequently. If you do end up on discussion boards run by spammers, do use safety precautions, such as a VPN service (NordVPN is excellent for cyber-security).
Image: Matteo Damiani
Also published on Medium.