By Terry Xu and Howard Lee
For those who have been online long enough, you have surely heard of the 50 Cent Party who are the Internet commentators employed by the government of the People's Republic of China or the Communist Party.
Their key function was to post comments on various Internet message boards, expressing a favourable opinion towards party policies, in an attempt to shape and sway public opinion.
The 50 Cent Party got its name due to popular belief that they are paid fifty cents Renminbi for every post that either steers a discussion away from anti-party sentiments, divert attention from sensitive content, or advances the Communist party’s line of argument.
The 50 Cent Party is believed to be still in force, and has allegedly shown itself most recently during the Yellow Umbrella revolution in Hong Kong, where a large force of such Internet commentators attempt to sway public opinion on websites and social media with fake accounts, against the pro-democracy protesters.
You might ask, so what has that to do with Singapore?
In 2007, The Straits Times reported on how the ruling People’s Action Party had attempted to address online criticism against itself – quite openly and aggressively, too, it seems.
“The People's Action Party (PAP) is mounting a quiet counter-insurgency against its online critics.
It has members going into Internet forums and blogs to rebut anti-establishment views and putting up postings anonymously.
Sources told The Straits Times the initiative is driven by two sub-committees of the PAP's 'new media' committee chaired by Manpower Minister Ng Eng Hen.
One sub-committee, co-headed by Minister of State (Education) Lui Tuck Yew and Hong Kah GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad, strategises the campaign.
The other is led by Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Baey Yam Keng and Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Josephine Teo. Called the 'new media capabilities group', it executes the strategies.
Both were set up after last year's General Election. Aside from politicians, some 20 IT-savvy party activists are also involved.
When contacted, Mr Baey declined to give details of the group's activities, but he outlined the broad principles of the initiative.
It was necessary for the PAP to have a voice in cyberspace as there were few in the online community who were pro-establishment, he said.
As such, the committees aim to 'observe how new media is developing and see how we can use the new media as part of the overall media landscape', he added.
'How do we facilitate views that are pro-party and propagate them through the Internet?'
The approach reflects comments by Rear-Admiral (NS) Lui at the PAP's party conference in December. He called on younger activists to put up views 'to moderate the vitriol and balance the skewed comments' on the Internet.
But this can only work if activists are not 'too obvious' about it, Mr Baey said yesterday. Otherwise it comes across as 'propaganda'.
'The identity is not important. It is the message that is important,' he added.
One activist who is involved said that when posting comments on online forums and the feedback boxes of blogs, he does not identify himself as a PAP member.
He tracks popular blogs and forums to 'see if there is anything we can clarify' on hot-button topics such as the impending hike in the Goods and Services Tax.
But he added: 'We don't rebut everything. Sometimes, what is said is fair enough, and we send the feedback on to the committee.'”
On 3rd October this year, TOC has written to MP Zaqy Mohammad about him chairing this committee which he has not acknowledged nor denied the report made on him.
Three things should be noted about this effort, which has a bearing how we evaluate its progress. First, the tones are distinctively militant – “counter-insurgency” used together with “strategies” and “campaign" gives it war-like connotations. Second, such a group has no qualms about the anonymity of its members. Third, the objective of the group is clearly to sway public opinion, through stealthy means if necessary, favourably towards the PAP government.
Of course, it is not immediately clear if this “counter-insurgency” online group are paid for their services like the 50 Cents Party in China. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to believe that these “some 20 IT-savvy party activists” are likely from the PAP’s grassroots organisations and are strong supporters of the party.
Given that this counter-insurgency group – or “Internet Brigade” as it is popularly known, “IB” for short – was announced some time back, does it still exist, and if so, what are the various forms that they can take?
Are they in the government outreach platform REACH, or are they found in the government websites explaining policies? Or are they simply out there harassing oppositions and their supporters, doing the will of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong when he wanted to "fix the opposition"?
The open and very obvious strain would be Facebook groups like Fabrications About The PAP (FAP) and its sister page Fabrications Led by Opposition Parties (FLOP). These two groups openly profess support for the PAP, and all their posts are aimed at either championing the PAP or attacking opposition parties or those who oppose government policies. They have also taken it upon themselves to attack online platforms that are critical of the ruling party.
There are no exceptions to this mode of operation, and it can be seen in their posts. Readers reading these posts are clear of their agenda, and there is no disillusion that these groups represent anything close to a fair and unbiased portrayal of online sentiment.
On the other hand, there is reason to believe that there are groups that are less above board, with the very intent, as Mr Baey said, to avoid appearing “too obvious” so that it doesn’t “come across as propaganda”.
In November 2012, an exposé on an online Facebook group named My Compass revealed an inkling, if not hitting the nail on the head, of what this counter-insurgency group might be.
“Upon receiving instructions by the administrators, unquestioning members spring into action to counter unfavourable chatter forming against PAP members or its linked entities. They operate in large numbers with the primary objective of drowning out negative comments and derailing the discussions on the internet.
In addition, they also monitor Facebook activities of opposition parties, and call for reinforcements to help counter statements that are critical of the ruling party.”
Little else is known of My Compass, or if it is the only group, other than the indication that one of its key members is also the founder of FAP and FLOP. Their activities, if what the exposé has described is true, tantamount to astro-turfing and “are counter-productive to efforts by netizens to critically engage policy makers, and present an inaccurate picture of policy reception”.
Interestingly, the original post on My Compass was replicated on government feedback portal REACH in November 2012, and remains there to this date.
Is there reason to believe that the underground, subversive groups of IBs are still around? If we were to go by the words of Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing, you bet.
“"We must not concede the space – physical or cyber. We will have to learn from the 1960 generation of PAP pioneers – to fight to get our message across at every corner – every street corner, every cyberspace corner, be it in the mass media or social media. We will have to do battle everywhere as necessary," he said.”
The combative tones that Mr Chan espouses – granted that he was former military – has the same ring as the report by The Straits Times in 2007.
As such, it makes sense for us to examine the current forms that the IBs have taken. We need to be wary that there are those who inhabit cyberspace, with or without false accounts, but definitely with false pretences of creating an image for the PAP and distract online users from participating in meaningful policy discussion.