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China’s Internet Army Getting More 'Refined'


FILE - Customers surf the Internet at an Internet cafe in Beijing, China.

There is a real Chinese army. It is called the People’s Liberation Army. It is the largest military force in the world.

But there is also an online Chinese army. It is nicknamed the “50 Cent Army.”

The name is connected to people who post comments online that are in support of China. Many people once thought that they were regular citizens who were getting paid 50 cents for each pro-China post they wrote.

But a new study says that they are actually government employees working overtime.

A Harvard University study found that the “50 centers” are not young Chinese writing posts to earn money. They are actually government employees who work overtime. They post online messages designed to seem like ordinary citizens wrote them.

The Harvard study, published in August, said the posts are usually bland and pro-China.

“Almost none of the Chinese government’s 50-cent party posts engage in debate or argument of any kind,” the study said.

The “50 Cent Army” is busiest during patriotic holidays in China, or when the government wants to cover up news events, such as the independence protests in Hong Kong.

David Bandurski is the editor of the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project. He was one of the first media experts to write about the virtual army. He wrote about the 50 Cent Army in 2008.

Bandurski said many in China are nervous during holidays or anniversaries of anti-communist protests. That is when the virtual army tries most to “redirect public opinion.”

The 50 Cent Army began in the early 2000s. At that time, most online discussions took place on message boards and in chat rooms. The army has had to change its methods in the “era of Weibo,” Bandurski said. Weibo is a Chinese social media site that is similar to Twitter and Facebook.

“By this point, everyone is interacting online in real time,” he said.

The Chinese government is also working with the Communist Youth League. The league is a powerful group of 89 million people. Its members are between the ages of 14 and 28. The government works with the youth league to “purify” the Internet.

Experts say its members are more aggressive than the 50 Cent Army described in the Harvard study. They are also more skilled at posting on foreign social media sites that are blocked in China.

The group wrote 40,000 negative comments on the Facebook page of an Australian Olympic swimmer who called a Chinese swimmer “a drug cheat.”

They did the same thing when Tsai Ing-wen was elected president of Taiwan. Foreign Policy magazine reported that some 40,000 negative comments appeared on her Facebook page in just 12 hours.

Bandurski called the youth league members “volunteer armies of mobilized, angry youth.” He said they are happy to “spam” the president of Taiwan.

FILE - A computer user sits near displays with a message from the Chinese police on the proper use of the internet at an internet cafe in Beijing, China, Aug. 19, 2013.
FILE - A computer user sits near displays with a message from the Chinese police on the proper use of the internet at an internet cafe in Beijing, China, Aug. 19, 2013.

He described them as “version 2.0” of the 50 Cent Army.

Bandurski said that he does not think the Communist Youth League members get paid to post the negative comments. They also often use their real names, he said.

Experts say there is evidence that China is becoming more effective at controlling online opinions. Bandurski said efforts by the 50 Cent Army are getting ”more sophisticated and more refined.”

“The 50 Cent Army doesn’t just fade away,” Bandurski said.

I’m Dan Friedell.

Joyce Lau wrote this story for VOANews.com. Dan Friedell adapted it for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

What do you think of the 50 Cent Army? We want to know. Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

nickname – n. a name (such as “Moose” or “Lady Bird”) that is different from your real name but is what your family, friends, etc., call you when they are talking to you or about you

overtime – n. time spent working at your job that is in addition to your normal working hours

bland – adj. showing no emotion, concern, etc.

virtual – adj. existing or occurring on computers or on the Internet

mobilize – v. to bring (people) together for action

spam – v. to send unwanted e-mail or other messages to (someone)

sophisticated – adj. having or showing a lot of experience and knowledge about the world and about culture, art, literature, etc.

redirect – v. to change the path or direction of (something)

patriotic – adj. having or showing great love and support for your country : having or showing patriotism

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