China pushing back against online smear campaigns

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 27, 2011; 6:30 PM

BEIJING - Yang Feiyun belongs to an army that the Chinese government doesn't like. Yang's army operates online, obeying few rules. Its members spend long hours in front of the computer, normally for meager wages, posting comments in as many places as possible.

The army, Yang has learned from experience, can change almost any opinion in China in a matter of just 72 hours. The army can cause panics, create celebrities, or push for social justice. It can also cause China's 420 million Internet users to believe things that aren't true.

In recent weeks China's central government, as part of its long-running crusade to regulate and police the Internet, has aimed its efforts at this vast network of mercenaries with a startling ability to manipulate public opinion.

Within the last year Chinese authorities have uncovered several cases in which major companies paid members of the so-called online army to flood influential message boards, blogs and chat rooms with false information about competitors. China's State Council Information Office says that these smear campaigns have "disrupted normal Internet communication order."

But according to Chinese Internet marketers, it's also the subversive potential of the online army that has authorities concerned. The recent lesson for the government has been an important one: When a large number of people spread information across the Internet in a coordinated way, it doesn't much matter if they're writing about defective dairy products or corruption. China's "netizens" will often read the posts before the government - which bans the posting of false or disorder-causing information - has a chance to take them down.

"I think the [online] army is often described as evil, but that is not right," Yang said. "We are just a tool, and it depends on who uses the tool."

The government announced this month that it had assembled a panel of Internet experts and legal advisors to study ways to limit the influence of online armies. But a statement provided to the Post indicated an apparent reluctance to take drastic action. "We are also going to demand Web sites to strengthen self-discipline and [improve their] internal management," the State Council Information Office said.

Spoiled milk

Concern about the influence of the marketers was raised last year following a case in which one large company funded a campaign to spread false information about its top competitor. After a two-month investigation, police revealed an "Internet battle plan" created jointly by Mengniu, one of the country's largest dairy companies, and a Beijing-based Internet marketing company.

The marketing company, police said, paid writers to spread a crafty rumor about a children's milk product manufactured by Yili. The rumor came in two waves. First, the posters - never mentioning Yili - bombarded Internet forums and blogs with news that deep-sea fish oil had dangerous health effects. Mainstream papers picked up the story, and by the time they did, the online army had returned to the message boards, this time mentioning that - oh, by the way - a particular Yili's milk product aimed at children contains this fish oil. And it could cause early-onset puberty.

"Yili QQ star children milk may come from wasted fish guts, and maybe waste parts + high mercury content+ factories in Kaifeng Henan," one make-believe parent wrote on a forum. "But now it was exposed that the milk product . . . can make children sexually premature. I'm going crazy."

By October, the scam campaign had led to the arrest of a senior executive at Mengniu and three online marketing managers. But it hadn't stemmed the use of the online army, whose members are often subcontracted by more reputable - and publicly visible - marketing companies.

"Internet PR companies that don't hire armies cannot survive," said Xing Nianqing, an executive at Beijing's Chen Mo Internet marketing firm. Xing added, "Practically, the Internet is the heaven for crime. There are lots of criminals but little police."

Estimates on the size of the online army vary wildly, in large part because it relies on an uncoordinated network of part-timers and college students. But numerous marketing executives believe the army has several hundred thousand members. They work together in small groups - by the dozens, or sometimes by the hundreds, and are usually paid on a per-post basis.

Skilled labor

Yang took his first job with an online army in 2008 and figured it wouldn't require much skill. He could craft comments on message boards straight through the night. The key was making sure each post read differently, and each had to sound legitimate. Yang sometimes found himself working 13- or 14-hour days, functioning almost like a machine. He earned roughly 6 U.S. cents per post, or $12 per day.

"The money can seduce," Yang said. "I kept that pace up for almost half a year. At the time, I was really poor."

One year ago Yang co-founded a new company, Genereal, where he earns more money, coordinating the posting performed by employees. Genereal has 13 or 14 army members. The company bases itself in a two-bedroom apartment with 12 computers. Genereal, according to Yang and co-founder Li He, works on behalf of major companies - Dove soap; China Mobile; a Chinese e-commerce company called Alibaba. Yang and Li say their company doesn't post false information; they don't target clients' competitors. They also refuse to share details about the message boards on which they post, saying that soft advertising only works if netizens don't know it is advertising.

"This information," Li said, "I must keep a secret for my clients."

Staff researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.

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