What do Hillary Clinton and the communist government of China have in common? Aside from their shared support for subverting freedom, lack of respect for human rights, and support of invasive surveillance, they both possess armies of trolls who manipulate online narratives.
According to a new report from researchers at Harvard’s Department of Government, the Chinese government employs millions of people to make posts praising government on their behalf. The internet mercenaries are deemed, collectively, “The 50 Cent Party,” because of rumors they are paid per post (the report concluded they do not appeared to be paid and most are government employees to begin with). They are believed to make 488 million posts per year.
After a blogger leaked hacked official email archives, the long-suspected program was confirmed to be real. Those leaks “reported activities of Internet commentators, including numerous 50c posts from workers claiming credit for completing their assignments, and many other communications.” The posts were often “cheerleading” for government, sometimes to “distract the public, although this activity can be also be used to distract from other events, general negativity, specific grievances, etc.” Posts that reflected positively on government made up the majority of so-called 50 centers’ activity, and the researchers theorized it “is a strategy designed to actively distract and redirect public attention from ongoing criticism, other grievances, or collective action.”
Perhaps such behavior is to be expected of an overarching communist regime, but Hillary Clinton’s internet army made headlines before China’s. As Anti-Media reported last month, the Clinton campaign has invested $1 million to fund an army of internet crusaders to challenge negative conversations about her online. That army, called “Barrier Breakers” and is a division of her organization, Correct the Record, which describes itself as “a strategic research and rapid response team designed to defend Hillary Clinton from baseless attacks.”
According to Correct the Record’s website, Barrier Breakers is intended to “serve as a resource for supporters looking for positive content and push-back to share with their online progressive communities, as well as thanking prominent supporters and committed superdelegates on social media.” (By “committed superdelegates,” perhaps they mean “paid lobbyists.”)
The project is extensive, “including the more than tripling of its digital operation to engage in online messaging both for Secretary Clinton and to push back against attackers on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Instagram.”
It appears 50 centers and Barrier Breakers are performing the same function: creating potentially artificial perceptions that the Chinese government and Hillary Clinton, respectively, enjoy enthusiastic support (it’s likely some members of both the Chinese and Clinton social media teams do genuinely believe the things they post). But there are differences.
For one, the Chinese government has attempted to keep its operations secret. In contrast, the Clinton campaign has made its intentions public, seizing the opportunity to couch their attempts to control the conversation in proactive language that conflates itself with combating online harassment. “The task force currently combats online political harassment, having already addressed more than 5,000 individuals who have personally attacked Secretary Clinton on Twitter,” they boast. They do not disclose whether task force members’ individual identities are public or private.
Correct the Record claims Hillary supporters are “oftentimes are discouraged from engaging online and are ‘often afraid to voice their thoughts’ because of the fear of online harassment,” using this, evidently, as justification for paying people to post positive sentiments about the candidate, who currently suffers a likeability problem as severe as reviled presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
The biggest difference between Clinton and the Chinese government in their efforts to sway conversations online concerns the degree of defensive engagement they display: according to the researchers, the Chinese government’s posters “do not step up to defend the government, its leaders, and their policies from criticism, no matter how vitriolic; indeed, they seem to avoid controversial issues entirely,” preferring, rather, to use cheerleading efforts to distract and redirect. “Letting an argument die, or changing the subject, usually works much better than picking an argument and getting someone’s back up,” the researchers explained.
In contrast, Clinton’s Barrier Breakers project openly admits its active engagement in countering anti-Hillary narratives. Referencing “Bernie Bros,” Barrier Breakers vows to use what they’ve learned to “quickly and forcefully [respond] to negative attacks and false narratives.” This reaches beyond the Chinese government’s designs to distract with cheerleading; it’s an unabashed effort to change minds — even as Barrier Breakers fails to elaborate on the “false narratives” they plan to challenge.
Their goal conveniently ignores Clinton’s own proclivity for dishonesty and manipulating narratives. Indeed, her collective of paid public supporters extends to cable news, where many pundits praise her but fail to disclose they are on her payroll.
Hillary Clinton and the Chinese government are not the only entities who attempt to mold narratives and public perception to their benefit. Donald Trump was caught hiring real-life actors to drum up enthusiasm for his campaign. In the social media sphere, the Israeli government has a student program, called “Hasbara,” meant to counter online speech critical of Israel. British spy agency, GCHQ, which wokrks closely with the NSA, has a program to manipulate online political narratives and destroy the reputations of activist movements. And of course, the American government, namely — that we know of — the military, uses sock puppet accounts to spread pro-American propaganda.
While Barrier Breakers is, perhaps, more permissible than the Chinese government’s program, in that it is not officially sponsored by government, Clinton has given the populace no reason to believe her manipulative practices will cease should she make it to the White House.