China has announced a certified training course for its "50-cent army" of Internet propagandists who are paid to manipulate public opinion by posting and retweeting comments favorable to the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
State-run news agency Xinhua's online news service Xinhuanet said it would run the first part of its course on the "management of online public opinion" on March 27, in a bid to train large numbers of people to write comments supportive of the government and its policies.
The exact numbers of people grouped under the "50-cent army" is unknown, and many are employed by separate organizations under different job titles.
But their role is to try to swing the opinions of China's increasingly frustrated netizens in the direction of the status quo, posting pro-government opinions and trying to deflect criticism and dissent among China's 600 million Internet users.
China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology recently set up the National Online Public Opinion Management Skills Proficiency Test Center, which has a website at www.npst.org.cn, Xinhuanet said in an announcement on its website this week.
The program will teach aspiring 50-centers how to covertly direct online discussions on "mass incidents" of civil unrest and rioting that are a common occurrence in today's China.
They will also receive training in the influence of "Big V" tweeters with huge followings on popular microblogging platforms like Sina Weibo, who have been warned by the government to exhibit "social responsibility" after some posted comments highly critical of the government.
Organizations wishing to train 50-centers can start them as assistant analysts before they move up to analyst and senior analyst grades, or senior network engineer grade, by taking further tests, it said.
"Students who pass the exam receive a certificate issued by the Ministry of Education and Vocational Examination Center that can be used by employers as a key basis for selection, appointment, evaluation, and promotion of candidates," it said.
Trainees will benefit from the experience of "veteran" manipulators of online public opinion, and learn through analysis of case studies, simulation, and group discussion.
Results from the three-hour examinations set by the center are returned within 10 days, the statement said.
Wang Jinxiang, an independent website publisher based the central province of Hubei, said the move to professionalize the "50-cent army," often the target of derision by netizens, was unprecedented.
"There was never this sort of system or professionalization in the past," Wang said. "It seems that this is a new set of qualifications."
"This has come about as the Internet becomes more universally used."
Wang said online public opinion is an issue that makes Chinese officials very nervous, and the new qualification could play a role in more in-depth study of online opinion as a social phenomenon in China.
"They are focusing on trying to collect online public opinion at the moment," he said. "Previous research wasn't systematized, and had omissions; it wasn't direct."
But he added: "Trying to control citizens' freedom of expression contravenes the Constitution."
Guangxi-based freelance writer Xing Chu agreed.
"They are really a form of cultural and ideological spies," he said. "This is the product of a mentality that thinks everything in heaven and earth and in other people's lives is its business."
"This is pretty much the same thing as the 50-cent army we had before."
China has cracked down on a number of high-profile journalists and tweeters in recent months.
On Sept. 1, 2013, China's highest judicial authorities issued a directive on Sept. 1 criminalizing online "rumor-mongering," in a move widely seen as targeting critical comments and negative news on the country's hugely popular social media sites.
Last year saw increasing levels of official control over freedom of expression, including criticisms of the government that were merely implied, the report, issued by the Hubei-based rights group Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, said in an annual report last month.
Reported by An Pei for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.