'Web commentators' helping to spread Beijing's message throughout nation
By Pascale Trouillaud, AFP
May 16, 2011, 9:02 pm TWN
BEIJING--China, which employs an army of censors to police the Internet, has also deployed legions of "Web commentators" to get the government's message out — in a crafty but effective way.
With nearly half a billion people surfing the net in China, more than half of them using microblogs, the Internet has quickly become a vital forum for debate in the world's most populous country — and a major sounding board.
That fact has obviously registered with the country's Communist leaders, who pay careful attention to the conversations that unfold online despite the heavy government restrictions on what can and cannot be discussed in cyberspace.
Enter the "Web commentators" who, either anonymously or using pseudonyms, spread politically correct arguments — many of them for money. Who are these high-tech propaganda wizards, infiltrating blogs, news sites and chat rooms?
"It is very mysterious ... these people don't talk to the media! Everyone is just guessing," Jeremy Goldkorn, editor of the China media website Danwei.org, told AFP.
For high-profile independent Chinese blogger Li Ming, the army of pro-government web commentators must number "at least in the tens of thousands."
Renaud de Spens, a Beijing-based expert on the Chinese Internet, told AFP that most of them were likely students "doing a basic cut-and-paste job" — a mindless task, "just like if they took jobs in telemarketing."
Some of those students are trying to improve their chances of gaining a coveted party membership.
But the group of Web spin-doctors also includes civil servants and employees of state-owned firms — and even retirees and housewives keen to support the party line.
De Spens notes that the system is far from centralized.
"The provinces, cities, districts and work units all rally their own small armies to infiltrate the Internet in a subtle way," he said.
In 2010, the Global Times reported that Gansu province alone was looking to recruit 650 full-time Web commentators "to guide public opinion on controversial issues."
Amnesty International secretary-general Salil Shetty in March warned that countries like China and Iran were investing "considerable resources into pro-government blogs" in an effort to cement state power.