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The practice began eight years ago, when Chinese propaganda officials sought ways to deal with growing anti-government activity on Internet message boards. One idea was to organize the pro-government posters already out there. The propaganda bureaucracy (which is huge in China) did so and got so many volunteers that they soon developed a test to select the most capable posters and also set up training classes to improve the skills of volunteers. Cash bonuses were offered for the most effective work. At one point, the government had nearly 100,000 volunteers and paid posters operating. This quickly evolved into the 50 Cent Army, and now the 50 Ruble Army in Russia.
The Chinese eventually realized that quality was better than quantity because the less articulate posters were easily spotted, and ridiculed, as members of the "50 Cent Army" or "Internet Apes." This was especially the case outside China. Inside China people just learned to ignore the government posters. But the more skilled Internet Apes appeared convincing to many people following Internet based discussions. The 50 Cent Army was often a very worthwhile investment.
In the United States the same techniques were adopted to push political candidates or commercial products. There it was called "viral marketing." The CIA has used a similar technique to counter anti-American, or pro-terrorist, activity on the Internet. This activity also made it easier to spot potential terrorists or potential informants.
Russia is adopting the Chinese technique of harnessing the enthusiasm of pro-government volunteers. As happened elsewhere, bloggers and posters with a large following are also enticed to be pro-government, for a fee (or perhaps because of a few threats).
This practice of buying favorable attention in the media is nothing new and is centuries old. The U.S. is unique in that, for about a century, the American mass media has been largely free of this blatant bribery. But in most of the world, a clever journalist quickly attracts the attention of people who will pay for some favorable comments. It's no secret, although many journalists insist they are not bought.