Leaked Emails Show Chinese Regime Employs 500,000 Internet Trolls

Regardless of its exact size, the phenomenon described here amounts to a propaganda exercise of staggering proportions.
Leaked Emails Show Chinese Regime Employs 500,000 Internet Trolls
A woman types on her laptop in Beijing. Leaked emails show the Chinese regime employs at least 500,000 paid commentators in its "Fifty Cent" army. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
Joshua Philipp

Leaked emails that expose the workings of the Chinese regime’s secret “Fifty Cent” army of Internet trolls are making the rounds among the Chinese-language press. On the basis of the emails Chinese-language media has estimated that the regime employs at least 500,000 of the Internet trolls.

An unnamed hacker allegedly breached China’s Internet Information Office in Zhanggong District, Ganzhou City, in southeastern China’s Jiangxi Province and posted its emails on the Internet. News of the breach was on most major news outlets in Taiwan on Dec. 8, and most of them cited a report from Radio France International.

China’s Fifty Cent army is a group of Internet commentators who get paid to leave fake comments on news articles and social media. They allegedly get paid 50 cents of yuan for every post.

Internal orders for the Fifty Cent army were leaked in 2011. They stated, according to Business Insider, that its members should make America the “target of criticism” and manipulate criticisms against the U.S. government to create sentiments favorable to the Chinese regime.

The term “Fifty Cents” is blocked by the Chinese regime’s Internet censors to stop netizens from discussing its paid commentators.

The emails from the Zhanggong District office show how the Internet Propaganda Office gives orders to attack people who demand democracy and praise the ideologies of Chinese Communist Party leaders.

The emails detail how the Internet Propaganda Office manages the Fifty Cent army. It said they should post comments on the Internet as if they were normal netizens. For their work evaluations, it said each person in the Fifty Cent army is required to send an email to the Internet Propaganda Office showing his or her Internet posts, along with the Web link.

The Internet Propaganda Office will also send out emails to Fifty Cent army operatives showing sample comments.

“The difference between this and other industries in society is that its purpose is to strengthen political control. The specialty of this industry is that it consumes social wealth, but doesn’t create any value,” He Qinglian, a prominent online commentator, told Voice of America in October 2013.

“In China, these jobs are funded with taxes, but the work goes against the taxpayer,” she said.

Conservative Guess

The estimate derived by China’s press that the regime employs 500,000 people in its Fifty Cent army may be a conservative guess.

People’s Net reported on Jan. 18, 2013, that Beijing Deputy Mayor Lu Wei, who is also the propaganda director in Beijing and a member of Beijing’s Standing Committee, announced some rough numbers.

Lu Wei said there were 60,000 people working in Beijing’s propaganda system and an additional 2 million people working outside the system.

“Everyone working as a propagandist should use the new media outlets well,” stated the report. “Read Weibo. Use Weibo. Post on Weibo. And study Weibo. Try to increase discussion on important topics.”

“Beijing demands that over 2 million propagandists should do their jobs,” it stated. “There are 2 million alone in Beijing.”

Weibo is one of China’s leading social networking platforms. It’s a micro-blogging platform, and is a major hub where Chinese nationals discuss news and politics.

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 1.42.22 pm

In a 2011 report, Freedom House cited David Bandurski of Hong Kong University saying in July 2008 that China had an estimated 280,000 people in its Fifty Cent army. It stated later in the article that by October 2011 China was rumored to have expanded that number to 560,000.

Harvard University researchers wrote in American Political Science Review in May 2013 that the Chinese regime had between 250,000 and 300,000 paid Internet commentators. According to Business Insider, however, some Chinese websites and Internet providers also hire their own commentators.

According to Freedom House, “Regardless of its exact size, the phenomenon described here amounts to a propaganda exercise of staggering proportions.”

“Rather than fostering an open dialogue with Chinese citizens,” it states, “the project is aimed at deceiving them into thinking that public support for the [Chinese Communist Party] and its policies is more prevalent than it actually it, and that abuses like corruption and torture are much less common than they are in reality.”

Additional reporting by NTD Television

Translation by Frank Fang.

Joshua Philipp is senior investigative reporter and host of “Crossroads” at The Epoch Times. As an award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker, his works include "The Real Story of January 6" (2022), "The Final War: The 100 Year Plot to Defeat America" (2022), and "Tracking Down the Origin of Wuhan Coronavirus" (2020).
Related Topics