Fifty Cents For Your Thoughts ?  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

The Far East Economic review has an interesting look at the techniques the Chinese Communist Party is using to spread the party line, online - China’s Guerrilla War for the Web.

They have been called the “Fifty Cent Party,” the “red vests” and the “red vanguard.” But China’s growing armies of Web commentators—instigated, trained and financed by party organizations—have just one mission: to safeguard the interests of the Communist Party by infiltrating and policing a rapidly growing Chinese Internet. They set out to neutralize undesirable public opinion by pushing pro-Party views through chat rooms and Web forums, reporting dangerous content to authorities.

By some estimates, these commentary teams now comprise as many as 280,000 members nationwide, and they show just how serious China’s leaders are about the political challenges posed by the Web. More importantly, they offer tangible clues about China’s next generation of information controls—what President Hu Jintao last month called “a new pattern of public-opinion guidance.”

It was around 2005 that party leaders started getting more creative about how to influence public opinion on the Internet. The problem was that China’s traditional propaganda apparatus was geared toward suppression of news and information. This or that story, Web site or keyword could be banned, blocked or filtered. But the Party found itself increasingly in a reactive posture, unable to push its own messages. This problem was compounded by more than a decade of commercial media reforms, which had driven a gap of credibility and influence between commercial Web sites and metropolitan media on the one hand, and old party mouthpieces on the other.

In March 2005, a bold new tactic emerged in the wake of a nationwide purge by the Ministry of Education of college bulletin-board systems. As Nanjing University, one of the country’s leading academic institutions, readied itself for the launch of a new campus forum after the forced closure of its popular “Little Lily” BBS, school officials recruited a team of zealous students to work part time as “Web commentators.” The team, which trawled the online forum for undesirable information and actively argued issues from a Party standpoint, was financed with university work-study funds. In the months that followed, party leaders across Jiangsu Province began recruiting their own teams of Web commentators. Rumors traveled quickly across the Internet that these Party-backed monitors received 50 mao, or roughly seven cents, for each positive post they made. The term Fifty Cent Party, or wumaodang, was born.

The push to outsource Web controls to these teams of pro-government stringers went national on Jan. 23, 2007, as President Hu urged party leaders to “assert supremacy over online public opinion, raise the level and study the art of online guidance, and actively use new technologies to increase the strength of positive propaganda.” Mr. Hu stressed that the Party needed to “use” the Internet as well as control it.

Ah, control freaks - all this sounds like a less ambitious version of Rumsfeld's infamous "Information Operations Roadmap" (whatever happened to that cartoon villain anyway ?).

Of course, we have our own equivalent of Chinese Communist Party propaganda trolls in the West as well (no surprise to Orwell fans) - except in our case neoconservative propaganda is generally spouted by the private sector, in the form of paid trolls like Netvocates rather than by the state.

Bruce Sterling has some comments on another piece of information warfare in China recently - Kiss That Chinese Chick From the Disco, Lose Your Government Blackberry.
(((I think Gordon Brown's govt is getting a bad press on its hapless computer security, but this latest episode is downright pathetic.)))

(((From SANS, and several dozen other sources who find themselves just kind of emptily staring at the train-wreck.)))

--Gordon Brown Aide's BlackBerry Stolen on China Trip

An aide to UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown fell prey to a likely "honeytrap" scheme in January when his BlackBerry phone was stolen after he brought a woman he met at a disco in China back to his hotel room. The aide was accompanying the PM on the trip; he reported the device missing the next morning. Officials suspect the incident was orchestrated by Chinese intelligence. It was not disclosed whether the device held top-secret information, but even so, it could potentially be used to gain access to the Downing Street server. Blackberrys used by Downing Street staff are password-protected but most are not encrypted. The aide has been informally reprimanded.

Moving back to the internet, The Edge has a set of responses to the recent Atlantic Monthly piece - Is Google Making Us Stupid ?. This excerpt is from Danny Hillis:
Nicholas Carr is correct in noticing that something is "Making us Stupid", but it is not Google. Think of Google as a life preserver, thrown to us in a rising flood. True, we use it to stay on the surface, but it is not for the sake of laziness. It is for survival.

The flood that is drowning us is, of course, the flood of information, a metaphor so trite that we have ceased to question it. If the metaphor was new we might ask, where exactly is this flood coming from? Is it a consequence of advances in communication technology? The power of media companies? Is it generated by our recently developed weakness for information snacks? All of these trends are real, but I believe they are not the cause. They are the symptoms of our predicament.

Fast communication, powerful media and superficial skimming are all creations of our insatiable demand for information. We don't just want more, we need more. While we complain about the overload, we sign up for faster internet service, in-pocket email, unlimited talk-time and premium cable. In the mist of the flood, we are turning on all the taps.

So why do we need so much information? Here is where we can blame technology, at least in part. Technology has destroyed the isolation of distance, so more of what happens matters to us. It is not just that the world has gotten more complicated (it has), but rather that more of the world has become relevant. Not only is world more connected (or, as Thomas Friedman would, say, flatter), but it is also bigger. There are more people, and more of them than ever have the resources to do something that matters to us. We need to know more because our world is bigger, flatter, and more complex.

Besides technology, we must also blame politics. We need to know more because we are expected to make more decisions. I can choose my own religion, my own communications carrier, and my own health care provider. As a resident of California, I vote my opinion on the generation of power, the definition of marriage and the treatment of farm animals. In the olden days, these kinds of things were decided by the King. ...

We evolved in a world where our survival depended on an intimate knowledge of our surroundings. This is still true, but our surroundings have grown. We are now trying to comprehend the global village with minds that were designed to handle a patch of savanna and a close circle of friends. Our problem is not so much that we are stupider, but rather that the world is demanding that we become smarter. Forced to be broad, we sacrifice depth. We skim, we summarize, we skip the fine print and, all too often, we miss the fine point. We know we are drowning, but we do what we can to stay afloat.

As an optimist, I assume that we will eventually invent our way out of our peril, perhaps by building new technologies that make us smarter, or by building new societies that better fit our limitations. In the meantime, we will have to struggle.

Wandering ever further off topic, here's an excerpt from a talk by Clay Shirky a few months ago on uses for our cognitive surplus - "Gin, Television, and Social Surplus".
I was recently reminded of some reading I did in college, way back in the last century, by a British historian arguing that the critical technology, for the early phase of the industrial revolution, was gin.

The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing-- there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.

And it wasn't until society woke up from that collective bender that we actually started to get the institutional structures that we associate with the industrial revolution today. Things like public libraries and museums, increasingly broad education for children, elected leaders--a lot of things we like--didn't happen until having all of those people together stopped seeming like a crisis and started seeming like an asset.

It wasn't until people started thinking of this as a vast civic surplus, one they could design for rather than just dissipate, that we started to get what we think of now as an industrial society.

If I had to pick the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would've come off the whole enterprise, I'd say it was the sitcom. Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened--rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before--free time.

And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan's Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.

And it's only now, as we're waking up from that collective bender, that we're starting to see the cognitive surplus as an asset rather than as a crisis. We're seeing things being designed to take advantage of that surplus, to deploy it in ways more engaging than just having a TV in everybody's basement.

This hit me in a conversation I had about two months ago. As Jen said in the introduction, I've finished a book called Here Comes Everybody, which has recently come out, and this recognition came out of a conversation I had about the book. I was being interviewed by a TV producer to see whether I should be on their show, and she asked me, "What are you seeing out there that's interesting?"

I started telling her about the Wikipedia article on Pluto. You may remember that Pluto got kicked out of the planet club a couple of years ago, so all of a sudden there was all of this activity on Wikipedia. The talk pages light up, people are editing the article like mad, and the whole community is in an ruckus--"How should we characterize this change in Pluto's status?" And a little bit at a time they move the article--fighting offstage all the while--from, "Pluto is the ninth planet," to "Pluto is an odd-shaped rock with an odd-shaped orbit at the edge of the solar system."

So I tell her all this stuff, and I think, "Okay, we're going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever." That wasn't her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, "Where do people find the time?" That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, "No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you've been masking for 50 years."

So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project--every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in--that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it's a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it's the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that's 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, "Where do they find the time?" when they're looking at things like Wikipedia don't understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that's finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.

Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn't know what to do with it at first--hence the gin, hence the sitcoms. Because if people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social institutions, then it wouldn't be a surplus, would it? It's precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society.

The early phase for taking advantage of this cognitive surplus, the phase I think we're still in, is all special cases. The physics of participation is much more like the physics of weather than it is like the physics of gravity. We know all the forces that combine to make these kinds of things work: there's an interesting community over here, there's an interesting sharing model over there, those people are collaborating on open source software. But despite knowing the inputs, we can't predict the outputs yet because there's so much complexity.

The way you explore complex ecosystems is you just try lots and lots and lots of things, and you hope that everybody who fails fails informatively so that you can at least find a skull on a pikestaff near where you're going. That's the phase we're in now.

2 comments

Anonymous   says 12:52 AM

Supporters of Israel, organized and otherwise, behave in a similar manner to the 50 cent crew and have been largely effective in shutting down criticism of Israel in the US MSM, and to a lesser extent in other countries.

Even the most obscure blogs seem to attract minders who attempt to set the record straight.

In Australia, you have Antony Lowenstein very capably trying to kick back against them on his blog, and (gasp) in MSM papers from time to time.

In the US, despite the heroic efforts of Mearsheimer and Walt, the MSM is off-limits to critics of Israel. In the blogosphere, at least, there is Philip Weiss who is pretty much sui generis.

So it would seem the Interweb cuts both ways: it makes information not previously accessible available to those who seek it out but it also facilitates the sort of activities you see the 50 cent party or giyus.org engaged in.

Obama has been masterful in his use of the internet for his campaign but has suffered because of it, too, if you consider the "viral" email campaign in the Jewish community suggesting he was a Muslim.

Who knows how this medium is going to turn out. For now, at least, there's all to play for.

Well - the Fifty Cent'ers are working more on an internet forum level than an MSM level.

I don't really follow the Israel/Palestine issue closely and I haven't ever noticed any pro-Israeli propaganda squads haunting any of the online places I keep tabs on.

I have noticed a few neo-nazi (or at least racist) campaigns in the comments sections of a few tinfoil sites over the years, so the Israelis clearly don't dominate the online forums of the west the way the 50centers are in China.

As for the MSM, from what I can see out here, the US media does seem pretty biased towards the Israeli point of view. I didn't get that feeling when I lived in Europe though -- certainly the BBC and Guardian take a pretty neutral stance and report both sides of the story.

Here in Oz, The Australian always argues the Israeli party line, the liberal papers are much more balanced. The TV news hardly ever mentions the subject.

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