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China Uses 22 Million-Strong Internet Troll Army To Shape Online Discourse

April 28th, 2021 12:19

The US think-tank Jamestown Foun­da­tion is report­ing that Chi­na is employ­ing an exten­sive net­work of more than 20 mil­lion “inter­net com­men­ta­tors” — trolls tasked with arti­fi­cial­ly ampli­fy­ing con­tent favor­able to the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment. Accord­ing to the Jamestown report:

April 12, 2021 This arti­cle illu­mi­nates the shift­ing size and mis­sion set of the forces behind China’s strug­gle to con­trol online pub­lic opin­ion. It finds that, in addi­tion to 2 mil­lion paid inter­net com­men­ta­tors, the CCP today draws on a net­work of more than 20 mil­lion part-time vol­un­teers to engage in inter­net trolling, many of whom are uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents and mem­bers of the Com­mu­nist Youth League (CYL; 共产主义青年团, gongchan zhuyi qingn­ian tuan). It con­cludes that although inter­net com­men­ta­tors are pri­mar­i­ly con­cerned with shap­ing China’s domes­tic infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ment, they are grow­ing in num­ber, and the scope of the Party’s pub­lic opin­ion war (舆论战; yulun zhan) is broad­en­ing to include foreigners. […]

Although paid com­men­ta­tors tend to attract more atten­tion from for­eign ana­lysts, the CCP’s net­work civ­i­liza­tion vol­un­teers form the back­bone of its strug­gle to con­trol pub­lic opin­ion inside and out­side of Chi­na. The char­ters of net­work com­men­ta­tor teams at numer­ous uni­ver­si­ties spec­i­fy that appli­cants should be CCP mem­bers, have high-qual­i­ty writ­ing abil­i­ty, and acute­ly grasp the Party’s polit­i­cal the­o­ry and pro­pa­gan­da work. […] Despite their youth­ful­ness, China’s teams of inter­net trolls are sur­pris­ing­ly mil­i­tant in char­ac­ter and struc­ture. The bud­get jus­ti­fi­ca­tion doc­u­ments of CYLs, CACs, and Pro­pa­gan­da Depart­ments rou­tine­ly refer to inter­net com­men­ta­tors as a “young cyber army” (青年网军; qingn­ian wang jun) and describe them as a “reserve force” capa­ble of “res­olute­ly resist­ing false state­ments and rumors, and fight­ing online pub­lic opin­ion wars.”

Read the full report here.

The report fur­ther notes that the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Par­ty (CCP) like­ly employs at least 120 “net­work civ­i­liza­tion vol­un­teers” for every 10,000 Chi­nese inter­net users. Each com­men­ta­tor team fol­lows unique guide­lines, but vol­un­teers are gen­er­al­ly asked to post between 1–25 com­ments per month and are gov­erned by a mer­it-based point sys­tem that deter­mines whether they may be pro­mot­ed or fired.

Recent Glob­al Influ­ence Oper­a­tions Report (GIOR) cov­er­age of China’s online influ­ence oper­a­tions tar­get­ing the West has included:

  • In April, we report­ed that China’s state pro­pa­gan­da appa­ra­tus is expand­ing its influ­ence among for­eign audi­ences through adver­to­r­i­al inserts in West­ern online media outlets.
  • In April, we report­ed that Chi­na is using West­ern YouTu­bers to defend itself against accu­sa­tions of human rights vio­la­tions in Xinjiang.
  • In March, an exclu­sive GIOR  inves­ti­ga­tion exposed a Chi­nese influ­ence oper­a­tion flood­ing YouTube with hun­dreds of pro­pa­gan­da videos white­wash­ing China’s human rights vio­la­tions in Xin­jiang and push­ing the hash­tag #StopX­in­jian­gRu­mors.
  • In March, we also report­ed that Chi­nese inter­net trolls start­ed a social media cam­paign aimed at dis­cred­it­ing the BBC.