Ai Wei Wei's Interview With the Chinese Digital Thought Police

What it is like being a member of the government's "50-Cent Gang"?


Web users log on at an Internet cafe in Shanxi province. (Reuters)

China's Web censorship machine is in full swing again after The New York Times published a story Thursday on Premier Wen Jiabao's massive family fortune that stretches into the billions of dollars. Within hours of the report, the Times' English- and Chinese-language websites had become unreachable from inside the People's Republic.

But even before China's Great Firewall had lumbered into motion, anonymous digital cheerleaders for the government were probably already hard at work spinning Beijing's response to the news. Members of the so-called "50-Cent Gang" are paid by the state to sway public opinion on Internet forums and chatrooms. These individuals portray themselves online as ordinary Chinese with a point of view, but in an environment where talk is cheap and nobody knows you're a dog, much less a paid government agent, the 50-Cent Gang generally enjoys free rein.

Ai Wei Wei, the artist and critic, sat down earlier this month with one of these semi-official public relations officers in Beijing's employ. Their conversation reveals a surprisingly structured approach to what others might liken to Western Internet trolling:

Can you describe your work in detail?

The process has three steps - receive task, search for topic, post comments to guide public opinion. Receiving a task mainly involves ensuring you open your email box every day. Usually after an event has happened, or even before the news has come out, we'll receive an email telling us what the event is, then instructions on which direction to guide the netizens' thoughts, to blur their focus, or to fan their enthusiasm for certain ideas. After we've found the relevant articles or news on a website, according to the overall direction given by our superiors we start to write articles, post or reply to comments. This requires a lot of skill. You can't write in a very official manner, you must conceal your identity, write articles in many dif­ferent styles, sometimes even have a dialogue with yourself, argue, debate. In sum, you want to create illusions to attract the attention and comments of netizens.

The work often borders on psycho-social analysis:

In a forum, there are three roles for you to play: the leader, the follower, the onlooker or unsuspecting member of the public. The leader is the relatively authoritative speaker, who usually appears after a controversy and speaks with powerful evidence. The public usually finds such users very convincing. There are two opposing groups of followers. The role they play is to continuously debate, argue, or even swear on the forum. This will attract attention from observers. At the end of the argument, the leader appears, brings out some powerful evidence, makes public opinion align with him and the objective is achieved. The third type is the onlookers, the netizens. They are our true target "clients". We influence the third group mainly through role-playing between the other two kinds of identity. You could say we're like directors, influencing the audience through our own writing, directing and acting. Sometimes I feel like I have a split personality.

What the 50-Cent Gang does is no easy task. But its members earn little more than $100 a month for their toil:

It's calculated on a monthly basis, according to quantity and quality. It's basically calculated at 50 yuan per 100 comments. When there's an unexpected event, the compensation might be higher. If you work together to guide public opinion on a hot topic and several dozen people are posting, the compensation for those days counts for more. Basically, the compensation is very low. I work part-time. On average, the monthly pay is about 500-600 yuan. There are people who work full-time on this. It's possible they could earn thousands of yuan a month.

On whether the commenter's personal convictions clash with his employer's:

Do you think the government has the right to guide public opinion?
Personally, I think absolutely not. But in China, the government absolutely must interfere and guide public opinion. The majority of Chinese netizens are incited too easily, don't think for themselves and are deceived and incited too easily by false news.

Do you have to believe in the viewpoints you express? Are you concerned about politics and the future?
I don't have to believe in them. Sometimes you know well that what you say is false or untrue. But you still have to say it, because it's your job. I'm not too concerned about Chinese politics. There's nothing to be concerned about in Chinese politics.

The full interview is worth a read.