China is stepping up media training for its officials, as well as an army of freelance commentators paid to direct public debate online, known as the "50 cent army," official media reported.
A news report from local television station, Hubei Xishui TV, said local officials from the Xishui county propaganda department had held training exercises for official spokespersons and "Internet commentators."
The report showed footage of a classroom, with a training session led by county propaganda department head Zhou Liya.
"The channels for putting out information are many and varied," Zhou was quoted as telling the trainees. "Information reaches the Internet particularly fast."
Zhou's training course included tips on how to influence coverage by the country's biggest news organizations, as well as numerous methods of using the Internet and social media to spread the government's message.
The course also focused on raising standards of communication during major breaking news events, improving the government's ability to influence the tide of public opinion and direct debate, particularly via the Internet.
Zhou told Internet commentators that they were to report "the truth" as fast as possible, to supplement their information with explanations for events, and to influence Internet debate in the "correct" direction, the report said.
Independent online commentator Ye Du said most local governments were carrying out similar programs, leading to rapid growth in the number of hired commentators, known collectively by netizens as the "50 cent army."
Ye said Guangdong officials had told local media recently that their locally trained "50-centers" would also be sent as interns to Beijing before starting work.
He said a typical work-day for a 50-center would involve watching forum posts, microblog posts, and chatrooms for topics linked to a specific keyword allocated by their managers.
How much they are paid depends on the number of comments, tweets, and posts they make that "correctly direct the debate," Ye said.
"After they search on Baidu, they then go straight onto the forums to post information that directs the opinions of netizens," Ye said.
"For example, if they believe that the information is affecting the image of their locality, they will get in touch with the moderator of the forum and have it deleted," he said.
Pu Fei, technical adviser for the Sichuan-based rights website Tianwang, said most government departments, agencies, and companies now have their own Internet commentator whose job is to put out public relations fires online.
"There is one person designated as commentator in every work unit now," Pu said.
"If anything comes up involving that company or department, for example a corruption case or scandal, they go online to put out propaganda and to argue their case."
Prominent Chinese blogger Mo Zhixu said he sees no problem with the government hiring people to speak for them, but added that the 50-centers also use various means to attack people whose opinions they don't like.
"They monitor and attack people, of course they do," Mo said. "It is this that makes them harmful to Internet users."
"They use the tactics of a dictatorship to mete out punishment to netizens," he said. "Otherwise, they could say whatever they liked."
The news website Canyu recently leaked a document titled "Internal Work Handbook" allegedly written for 50-centers.
In it, hired commentators are instructed to track down the source of any online "rumors," then to order the website that first posted it to delete the offending item.
"Then, Internet commentators should, using a different IP address, say that they are from the area where the incident took place, and tell people that the IP address of the original poster ... isn't even from that location, and that this must be a rumor," the handbook is quoted as saying.
Last week, China's propaganda chief spoke publicly about the problems of controlling the activities of the country's 500 million netizens, fueling fears that further attempts at control are on the way.
Propaganda department chief Liu Yunshan made the comments during a round-table media discussion held with participants from China, Japan, and South Korea, according to Taiwan's Central News Agency.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.