China sends its troops into cyberspace

John McCain’s campaign team has been at it. Wal-Mart was revealed as doing it. Sony in the past dabbled with it. Online, astroturfing – whereby stealth PR tactics are passed off as grassroots enthusiasm for a product or candidate – is flourishing. But in China, things have gone one step further – with the establishment of the country’s 50-cent army.At first glance, it might not resemble the kind of fighting force likely to strike fear into the hearts of its enemies. But, aided by China’s dominance of online media conversation this year, the army is rapidly assuming a formidable reputation. The premise is the same as many astroturfing projects: pay people (predominantly students) to push a certain line by posting to the many forums, blogs and bulletin boards that have proliferated in the country. The difference is that it is the government – rather than companies or campaigning groups – that is employing these estimated 300,000 “soldiers”.

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