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Invisible footprints of online commentators

  • Source: Global Times
  • [03:04 February 05 2010]
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By Zhang Lei

They hide behind changing identities and false IDs. They take orders from supervisors in cyber-space. In the US, they might be called "spin doctors," trying to mold public opinion in favor of one political party or the other.

In China, they are working for both the commercial firms and government entities.

Gansu government recently announced that it was recruiting a team of 650 Internet "commentators" to "guide" public opinion through posts and replies to comments by Web users on Internet forums.

The recruits were soon being ridiculed by other netizens as the "5 mao army," or "5 mao dang," referring to those who are paid 50 Chinese cents to post comments favorable to the government.

Some critics say the term "5 mao army" is a product of prejudice under western influence. Zhang Shengjun, a professor of international politics at Beijing Normal University, recently wrote in the Chinese edition of the Global Times that the foreign media are crucial in spreading the term.

"Now it has become a baton waved towards all Chinese patriots...Is there nothing worth admiring in China? Should Chinese government always be the target of criticism?" Zhang said.

According to a veteran media professional with more than 20 years of experience, government websites will approach commentators from traditional media on various issues such as the United States's arms sales to Taiwan. "It is my decision whether to write under my real name or a pen name," said the journalist, asking that his name be withheld.

"I was sometimes advised to take a stand different from the government position, so as to create a discussion." He said the ensuing online debate "helps the public better understand the issues and the truth behind them."

In addition, marketing companies specializing in online promotion write comments praising certain products to lure consumers into buying them, or at least influence the public's buying decisions.

Officials viewed China's online forums, a unique outlet for public opinion, as a threatening environment that could easily get "out of control",according to an article on the website of the State Council Information Office.

One-third of the 77 most influential social events in 2009 were publicized through Web forums and blogs while traditional media were kept silent, according to a report titled, "Society of China: Analysis and Forecast 2010," by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

In 2005, Li Wufeng, director of the State Council Information Office's Internet Affairs Bureau, said that online discussions made a deeper impression on people's minds and behavior than traditional newspaper reports or radio- TV commentary.

"Once mass protests erupt, online discussion boards can quickly mobilize in a way that can undermine social stability if mishandled," he said.

At about the same time, local publicity departments began to recruit Internet commentators as official jobholders, an idea which the government praised as a great innovation.

In April 2005, the government of Suqian, Jiangsu Province hired 26 commentators. Qualified applicants were required to show political integrity, logic and a sharp news sense, according to the Yangtze Evening News, noting that, "Their performance, based on the number of posts and replies, will be considered for awards in municipal publicity work."

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