The BBC’s Michael Bristow writes that local governments pay people who post comments favourable to them on the Internet — possibly tens of thousands of them: “They have been dubbed the ’50-cent party’ because of how much they are reputed to be paid for each positive posting” in Chinese currency.” Although the name sounds like it comes from the Chinese Internet, I am very sceptical about this. First, the sum is ridiculously low, and second, I cannot imagine that anyone really does such accounting. What I think is much more likely is that “volunteers” who post favourable comments benefit from their privileged connection to officials in informal ways.
While the claim that they are paid is suspicious, the story is plausible. The use of “community liaisons” has been mentioned in official documents some time back (see The Internet in China chapter). But that “Internet opinion leaders” may be employed by various government departments as a sort of public relations officers is a new development. For instance, Bristow quotes a Nanning City Hygiene Department document that says that such individuals
need to possess relatively good political and professional qualities, and have a pioneering and enterprising spirit. […]
A document released by the public security bureau in the city of Jiaozuo in Henan province boasts of the success of this approach.
It retells the story of one disgruntled citizen who posted an unfavourable comment about the police on a website after being punished for a traffic offence.
One of the bureau’s internet commentators reported this posting to the authorities within 10 minutes of it going up.
The bureau then began to spin, using more than 120 people to post their own comments that neatly shifted the debate.
“Twenty minutes later, most postings supported the police – in fact many internet users began to condemn the original commentator,” said the report.