The “50 Cents Party” (五毛党) an informal nickname given to the “army” of web users who defend the Chinese government in blog posts and BBS forums online (The name comes from what these people are supposedly paid by the government, 50 cents per post). Western discussions of this phenomenon tend to venture into hyperbolic territory; “Orwellian” is a word frequently used to describe the propaganda endeavor. “Mind Control”, “Big Brother 2.0”, and now, potentially, the “Grim Reaper”. Yes, Datamation‘s Mike Elgan thinks the 50 Cent Party can destroy Web 2.0.
Elgan, who has taken the top-end estimate that the 50 Cents Party consists of some 300,000+ people as fact, fears that its members could use their power to destroy user-feedback based websites like Youtube and Digg:
With 300,000 people, you can see how the CCP could easily determine what makes it onto the front page of Digg, and what gets shouted down. They could use Wikipedia, YouTube and Slashdot as their most powerful tools of global propaganda. It would be trivial for China to determine Yahoo’s “Most Popular” news items (“Most E-Mailed,” “Most Viewed” and “Most Recommended”).
Over the long term, the existence of China’s 50 Cent Army [Elgan uses the term “army” even though the Chinese term is literally “Party”] erodes the value of the Web 2.0, which is based entirely on the actions of users. If half those users are working for the CCP, then the results of user actions are compromised. Nobody can trust it.
Forgetting for a moment the ludicrous assumption that the “50 Cent Party” are the only people on the internet with an agenda beyond pure truth and thus the only people capable of making user feedback-based web portals untrustworthy, Elgan is dramatically overstating the numerical power the 50 Cents Party really holds. Conservative estimates indicate there are at least 200 million internet users in China currently, making the “50 Cents Party” a whopping 0.15% of Chinese internet users. Worldwide, some 1.4 billion people use the internet, and the percentage of 50 Cents Party members plummets into true insignificance. Given that the vast majority of these “Party members” are actually volunteers and likely speak little to no English, Web 2.0 being destroyed by a massive influx of Chinese propaganda seems, at best, extremely unlikely. Elgan then continues,
Ultimately, China’s 50 Cent Army threatens free speech. And although new threats to free speech are constantly being invented – the 50 Cent Army being one of the most recent innovations – the defense of free speech is always the same: More free speech.
The 50 Cents Party doesn’t actually threaten much more than the ability to have an interesting discussion about controversial topics online in Chinese without being interrupted by crazy nationalists. China has no shortage of nationalists and no shortage of critics, a potent mixture that is quite sure to brew all kinds of propaganda on its own. Furthermore, are governments not also theoretically entitled to freedom of speech? Granted, the method of hiring people to spread party-line opinions may be a bit heavy handed, but it’s also not particularly dishonest. The existence of these people is no secret, and their arrival on Chinese BBS forums is generally greeted with groans of recognition. They don’t delete other people’s posts (there are other civil servants who do that, and that practice is significantly more difficult to defend on moral grounds), they simply express an opinion. Quite frankly, those opinions are sometimes the sort of thing Westerners could use more exposure to.
Of course, to say that the 50 Centers have a right to do what they do is not to say that anyone has to like it. Recently, some Chinese netizens set up an official website for the 50 Cents Party at 5maodang.com. It reads, quite simply, “Hello, 50 Cents [members], please give my regards to your mother.” (h/t to ESWN on the link). For the curious, that sentence has the same connotations in Chinese as it does in English.
The 50 Cents Party, like most government propaganda, are an annoyance. Are they a threat to internet users outside China, or a threat to the entire Web 2.0 concept? Almost certainly not. The idea that they could be sure sounds scary, and Elgan’s urging to “be on the lookout for the CCP’s paid posters, and oppose them at every opportunity” gives Western internet users another reason to discount any China-related opinions that don’t match with their own preconceived notions, but the fact is there’s no real evidence of danger here.