The water army refers to paid posters who can be hired to flood a web space with articles, comments or links that their clients desire. It is estimated that there are hundreds of thousands people in China who are making money as soldiers of the water army. They are usually paid under 50 cents a post (yes less than the government sponsored 50-cent party), and they can be college students, housewives or migrant workers hanging out at Internet cafes. They are usually hired and organized by "Internet PR companies" that bring them assignment from clients, the PR companies usually get 60% of the client's payment while they only get 40%.
The services that the water army offer include: distorting the result of online polls, increase your followers on your microblog, pump up your posts in online forums, increase the hits of your video shared online, and even increase the download record of your products in App store or iTunes store.
In my research I talked with many "soldiers" of the water army. Here are somethings I took note of:
- Although they are often asked to just copy and paste what is assigned to them, they cannot help think about what they are posting. Sometimes if it is something that conflict with their own values, such as ads of fake drug or financial scams or libel against an innocent person, they often struggle with the dilemma between fulfilling their job like a digital robot and acting according to their own feelings.
- To enter different websites, they need to created multiple online IDs. Sometimes they take these online IDs as simple masks, which embolden them to do things that they wouldn't dare to do under their real name. But some develop a relationship with the fabricated identities, particularly if it is in a forum with personal interactions, they would feel bad if their job assignment leads to the notoriety of their IDs.
- They often need to paste hundreds of posts a day, which left them no time for real life interactions. Working all day on the Internet, and often not able to explain to their family or friends what their job is, made many of them feel detached from the real world. Sometimes they even see themselves as outsiders of the society. This is very common among all kinds of cyber workers I interviewed.
- They still would like to be a little creative in their online work. For example, a water-army soldier once told me that he like to use many web slangs in his posts, and sometimes his clients like it, because it will make his posts seem more real.
- The fact that they are being paid for posting online does change their experience of participating in online discussions. Many of them told me that they are now more skeptical of what people say on the Internet, because they know how many water armies are out there, and they tend to think people are more vulnerable on the Internet than they realize. But they are not entirely cynical about the Internet, most of them still enjoy all kinds of online interactions and often find the job of paid posting a better choice than other alternatives they have.