Man at His Best

Chinese Trolls Filling Up Cyberspace With Drivel

‘50-centers’ are quelling rebellions with millions of empty slogans.

BY Jason S Ganesan | May 24, 2016 | Culture


No sipping Bacardi (like it’s your birthday) here. In China, a ‘Fifty Cent Party’ is the collective name given to Chinese cybertroopers scouring the internet to defend the Communist regime.

The cybertroopers—called wumao (’50-centers’), because they are said to be paid RMB 0.50 per post—are widely believed to be freelance netizens who troll anti-government social media boards with posts defending the country’s leaders and policies.

Except they aren’t. A recent study by Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts shows that the reality is sadder still. Instead of underemployed basement-dwellers frothing at leftists, the wumao are actually made up of civil servants flooding cyberspace with patriotic drivel—up to 500 million posts a year.

The researchers used as their starting point a collection of over 43,000 leaked emails from the Internet Propaganda Office of Zhanggong district, which reported on the activities of wumao and other net commenters. Dividing the posts into categories based on their content, they then extrapolated the figures to the rest of China.

Instead of garden-variety cybertrooping, what they found was that up to 80 percent of all wumao posts were actually banal “cheerleading” slogans, and 13 percent were “non-argumentative praise or suggestions.” These include the gems: “We all have to work harder, to rely on ourselves, and to take the initiative to move forward,” “Respect to all the people who have greatly contributed to the prosperity and success of the Chinese civilization! The heroes of the people are immortal,” and “If everyone can live good lives, then the China Dream will be realised!”

Which seems harmless enough, because they are essentially no different from the kind of positive guff that your aunties post on Facebook, which usually elicits nothing more than an eyeroll.

But as the researchers argue, that is precisely the point. These cheerleading slogans are deliberately placed in discussions critical of the government—especially those calling for collective action—to distract and throw the discussions off course.

So the next time you see some yellow Minion on your timeline with some meaningless slogan like “Tomorrow is another day!” on your Facebook timeline, beware! Your bored aunt may secretly be a nefarious government agent out to stop the revolution. You have been warned.