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280,000 pro-China astroturfers are running amok online
Written by Daniel   
Friday, 26 March 2010 19:22

From ARS Technica

If you thought corporate "astroturfing" (fake grassroots activity) was a problem at sites like Yelp and Amazon that feature user reviews of products, imagine how much worse it would be if the US government employed a couple hundred thousand people to "shape the debate" among online political forums. Crazy, right? What government would ever attempt it?

According to noted China researcher Rebecca MacKinnon, the answer is China, which allegedly employs 280,000 people to troll the Internet and make the government look good.

MacKinnon's discussion of Chinese astroturfing measures turns up in testimony that she prepared from a Congressional hearing this month. When that hearing was eventually rescheduled, MacKinnon was no longer on the witness list, so she released her prepared remarks (PDF) anyway.

The government increasingly combines censorship and surveillance measures with pro-active efforts to steer online conversations in the direction it prefers. In 2008 the Hong Kong-based researcher David Bandurski determined that at least 280,000 people had been hired at various levels of government to work as “online commentators.” Known derisively as the “fifty cent party,” these people are paid to write postings that show their employers in a favorable light in online chat rooms, social networking services, blogs, and comments sections of news websites. Many more people do similar work as volunteers—recruited from among the ranks of retired officials as well as college students in the Communist Youth League who aspire to become Party members.

This approach is similar to a tactic known as “astro-turfing” in American parlance, now commonly used by commercial advertising firms, public relations companies, and election campaigns around the world. In many provinces it is now also standard practice for government officials - particularly at the city and county level - to work to co-opt and influence independent online writers by throwing special conferences for local bloggers, or inviting them to special press events or news conferences about issues of local concern.

That last sentence about co-opting bloggers certainly isn't limited to China; US companies have perfected the practice, and government PR people dole out interviews and access to journalists in ways often designed to shape opinions or coverage. But still—280,000 people paid to permeate message boards and e-mail lists, all backing the government's line? The mind boggles. [More...] [Comments...]


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