This article is written by New Bloom writer Brian Hioe, a M.A. student at Columbia University and freelance writer on politics and social activism. The original post, titled “Facebook Suddenly Unblocked In Chin, Tsai Ing-Wen's Facebook Page Flooded by ‘Fifty Cent Army'”, was published on News Bloom on November 11 and is republished on Global Voices in accordance with a content partnership agreement.
After the sudden, unexpected unblocking of Facebook in China for a day last November, Taiwan's oppositional Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate Tsai Ing-Wen’s Facebook page was flooded by posts, mostly from mainland China, with some users directly attacking Tsai and others claiming that Taiwan is part of China.
In response, Tsai Ing-Wen posted the above image on her Facebook page “welcoming” these commenters to democracy.
The image was widely shared by Taiwanese Facebook users, setting the stage for the Tsai campaign to use the incident as a campaign opportunity. The image was widely circulated and written about, and many observers believe that it did more to help Tsai's campaign than anything else.
But on all sides, the incident also raised the simple question: How did the unblocking happen?
Fifty Centers jump the Great Firewall
Some believe that the unblocking of Facebook was caused by an error in China’s “Great Firewall” due to high volumes of online shopping traffic for the November 11th “Singles’ Day”, a holiday on which single people in China celebrate their status, and which has become one of the largest online shopping days in the world.
It appears that once Facebook was rendered accessible, China’s “Fifty Cent Army” of government-paid online commenters jumped at the opportunity to scale the Great Firewall. The “Fifty Cent Army” is a term used to refer to individuals hired by the Chinese government to influence public opinion, usually by trolling targets en masse with negative comments. “Fifty cent” refers to the purported amount that members are paid per post, fifty cents RMB. Individuals employed as part of the “Fifty Cent Army” may number in the tens of thousands.
Some theorized that the Chinese government deliberately unblocked Facebook in order to allow the onslaught of unkind commenters to attack Tsai and her campaign. This may have been part of a test to see what would happen if access to Facebook is allowed in China, with rumors that access to Facebook had been deliberately allowed in some locations, such as college campuses.
If it was not the “Fifty Cent Army,” it may have been overly nationalistic netizens behind the posts, but many of the user accounts from which these attacks came appeared to be bots. Tsai Ing-Wen’s Facebook page soon became the site of dramatic conflict between netizens from Taiwan’s PTT Internet forum defending Tsai, and mainland Chinese users attacking Tsai.
Mark Zuckerberg had been visibly bowing and scraping before Chinese President Xi Jinping shortly before the incident, presumably in the hopes of getting Facebook unblocked in China, in order to open the Chinese markets up to Facebook. This included everything from placing Xi Jinping’s book, The Governance of China, prominently on his desk and publicly advising Facebook employees to read it, to marking meeting Xi Jinping as a personal milestone on his Facebook wall, and asking Xi to give his then-unborn baby daughter a Chinese name. The latter request, Xi turned down.
Did Zuckerberg’s efforts finally pay off? This question crossed many peoples’ minds when Facebook suddenly became accessible from within China. But then it disappeared just as quickly. No subsequent user or media reports have indicated that Facebook has been unblocked in China and it appears that Facebook eventually returned to be being blocked.
If Facebook does come to China, how might it fare?
As China has developed its own rich Internet ecology, centered around WeChat, Weibo, and other platforms in the absence of Facebook and Twitter, one might question whether Facebook would have as much traction in China as it does in other parts of the world. WeChat, for example, though a mobile-only messenger app and social network, has much more functionality than Facebook in regards to social integration, as it allowed users access to city services, store services, and other functionalities that are lacking in Facebook. It has also shown itself to strike an effective balance between allowing users to express political criticism in small, private user groups while enforcing the main government line on more public channels of the network.
WeChat’s many functionalities have also allowed it to become firmly integrated into daily life in China, something that it would be hard for Facebook to replicate. The trade-off, of course, is that WeChat parent company Tencent works closely with the Chinese state in order to track user activities. The integration of WeChat into society has allowed for expansive surveillance and could allow for social monitoring on an unprecedented scale. We can already glimpse this in a new credit system introduced by Tencent and Alibaba which is affected by political opinions and legal infractions, rewarding political compliance, and which some fear is a prelude to an official state-run system in the near future.
WeChat evidences the increasing sophistication of Chinese Internet censorship in that political criticism is tolerated in private circles on WeChat, with authorities only interfering when posts with political content become too widely circulated. Politically sensitive topics are less commonly deleted for being political criticism, but more often deleted as they are deemed to be dangerous or fast-spreading “rumors”. While Facebook is far from blameless in allowing for widespread surveillance of its users by the US government, there is agreement that it does not endeavor to control content on its networks as rigorously as WeChat.
Trolling as an increasingly common political strategy worldwide
The actions of China’s “Fifty Cent Army” may be overkill and it's clear that this strategy of mass trolling often backfires. In retrospect, many believe the attack on the Tsai campaign probably increased support for Tsai. Similarly, there are very few Chinese netizens lacking critical thinking skills to question the words and actions of the “Fifty Cent Army.” One suspects that, where the “Fifty Cent Army” aims to influence public opinion through brute force, more subtle strategies aimed at influencing public opinion would be more effective.
It may be that even outside of China, most major political parties today attempt to manipulate public opinion through social media networks, even in democratic countries. Within the US Democratic Party, for example, there have been recent accusations against the Hillary Clinton campaign, for example, for targeting the Bernie Sanders campaign through aggressive trolling. There have also been past accusations made against the Democratic Progressive Party by the Kuomintang in Taiwan for waging Internet warfare against them through conducting online smear campaigns.
China and Taiwan are both societies in which the Internet and social media have been very visible in recent years. Social media played a major role in mobilizing activists during the Sunflower Movement, mainly by way of Facebook and PTT. And if Internet censorship and authoritarian restrictions on protest in China have not allowed for social media to facilitate social movements as it has in other parts of the world, there are still phenomena in which netizens become a force to call for public justice, as in the case of the “human flesh search engine” (人肉搜索).
Politicization of social media inevitable
Taiwan is a bit of an outlier in the broader global milieu of online political campaign discourse, as it has the highest Facebook penetration in the world with 65% of the population on the platform. But in other ways, this story could help us glimpse the future.
Tsai’s campaign has generally been quite skilled in influencing public opinion, often through the creation of images that are then widely circulated on social media, not unlike the image she created in response to her hecklers from mainland China. Another recent example were her criticisms of Xi-Ma summit in Singapore later in November 2015, wherein she posted an image on Facebook that went viral. This was a subtle but effective way of influencing public opinion. In contrast, the onslaught of attacks on Tsai were ineffective because of their brute force nature.
What if, for example, Facebook did become permanently accessible in China and Tsai had to deal with continual attacks from the “Fifty Cent Army”? Tsai would have to find some way to mitigate this, perhaps through mobilizing her own Internet forces. Or Facebook itself would have to step in to somehow curb the actions of the “Fifty Cent Army”—something Zuckerberg might be hesitant to do. But this may just be further reflective of the nature of the Internet as a politicized space in the present.