Bo Xilai, once a rising political star in China, will go on trial on Thursday this week, with charges of bribery, corruption and abuse of power. Government censors have been in full gear since the very beginning of the series of political scandals centered around Bo and his family. The highlight of public opinion manipulation, however, didn’t come until a court in the eastern city of Jinan announced the specifics of Bo’s trial.
As if to encourage more open discussions online, the Intermediate People’s Court in Jinan specially opened an account on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblog service, just for the announcement of Bo’s trial. Its very first post told Weibo’s over 500 million users that Bo will go on trial in the court’s 5th chamber at 8:30 am on August 22, 2013, charged with bribery, corruption and abuse of power.
Interestingly, the word “allegedly” or anything close wasn’t used in the announcement. But even more interesting is how Chinese netizens responded, or are allowed to respond, to the post.
Till this day, there are still a lot of supporters of Bo who like his nostalgic Maoist campaigns and hardline crackdowns of local gangs in Chongqing. But none of the 3000+ comments left to the trial announcement was supportive of Bo.
All 3000+ comments were synchronized into 3 major themes: 1) Bo deserves harsh punishment; 2) the case is an example of rule of law in China; 3) the case shows the central government’s determination to fight corruption. For example, netizen 德孤有邻 commented: “Support rule of law! Firmly oppose corruption!” Another netizen 带你去森林动物园 commented: “Down with Bo Xilai. [We need to] firmly uphold Party regulations, law and justice.”
Could this be a truthful representation of China’s online public opinion on Bo’s case? Definitely not! Further examination reveals that most of the 3000+ comments were posted by netizens who left paraphrased comments with the same meaning multiple times. And there is a name for netizens like this – the Internet water army.
Below is a sample of what the Internet water army looks like. Circled in the same color are comments from the same netizen.
China’s Internet water army refers to a large number of well-organized people who are paid to flood the Internet with comments of particular content. Water here means that these people are large in quantity and invasive. The use of water army to manipulate online public opinion is a very common practice for Internet public relations in China. The Chinese government is probably the single biggest employer of water armies.
The presence of Internet water army has never been so real before. Any comments other than applause for Bo’s conviction are censored out in the comments section. When re-tweeting, however, netizens have more freedom to say what they like, and they are astonished at the blatant use of censorship.
One netizen 小鸡抓兔子V2013 commented: “I’m shocked to death after reading the comments. They are as uniform as the military parade on national day.”