Adaptive Persuasion in Cyberspace: The 'Fifty Cents Army' in China
27 Pages Posted: 5 Aug 2013 Last revised: 29 Jun 2015
Date Written: 2013
Studies on public expression in authoritarian regimes tend to focus on the cat-and-mouse censorship game in which the state and internet users (netizens) struggle over the limits of what can be discussed and what cannot. Few have systematically traced the process of online discourse competition within the state-imposed boundaries. how do authoritarian regimes adapt themselves to the new environment of online expression? In particular, how do authoritarian regimes manage public opinion beyond direct censorship or coercion? This project explores these questions by examining the Chinese case. Based on twelve months of fieldwork and over two years of in-depth online ethnography, this project finds that besides resorting to censorship, the Chinese state has adapted to the challenge of online expression by manufacturing pro-regime voices in the cyberspace. To do so, the propaganda state has mobilized an army of state-paid online commentators, popularly known as the fifty cents army, to engage in online discussion anonymously to produce pro-regime commentary. The seemingly smart adaptation has produced mixed results: though fifty cents may have managed to increase the state’s PR effectiveness on specific issues through astroturfing, it often backfires by increasing netizens’ distrust in the state and suppresses regime-supporters’ voices.
Keywords: Internet Commentator, Fifty Cents Army, Online Expression, China, Censorship
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